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SC county unanimously approves $10 million jail death settlement

Jamal Sutherland died in January after deputies repeatedly used stun guns and kneeled on his back to restrain him

Jamal Sutherland protesters SC

Elijah Whiteside leads protestors in a chant outside of Solicitor Scarlett Wilson’s office in the Charleston County Judicial Center, Friday, May 21, 2021, in Charleston, S.C., to demand that the officers involved in the death of Jamal Sutherland be charged.

Lauren Petracca/The Post And Courier via AP

Associated Press/Report for America
By Michelle Liu

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A South Carolina county has agreed to pay $10 million to the family of a man with mental health issues whom deputies forced to the ground on his stomach and repeatedly shot with stun guns and pepper spray before he died in jail this January.

The Charleston County Council voted Tuesday evening to approve the settlement for the family of Jamal Sutherland, a 31-year-old Black man who was booked into the county jail Jan 4.

The agreement comes less than two weeks after county officials released video clips that show deputies attempting to take Sutherland to a bond court appearance the next morning. Video shows that after Sutherland refused to leave his cell, deputies deployed stun guns and knelt on Sutherland’s back before he stopped moving. An hour later, Sutherland was dead, officials reported.

“I am so happy that it was a unanimous decision to do what was right by the Sutherland family,” Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said. “We know that no amount of money will bring their loved one back, but I think this starts the healing process.”

The detailed video has prompted Charleston activists this month to call for broad changes in how law enforcement agencies attend to people with mental illness.

Sutherland was originally booked on charges of third-degree assault and battery, a misdemeanor. His parents had placed him at Palmetto Behavioral Health, a mental health and substance abuse center, for treatment of his schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Officials said they were called to investigate a fight at the center and arrested Sutherland as a result.

Mark Peper, the family’s attorney, has previously said that Sutherland’s illness was so severe he should never have been held in a nonmedical portion of the jail.

“Justice for Jamal will come in many forms,” the family said in a statement Wednesday. “We are pleased to have negotiated a settlement with the government entities that provides the type of civil justice he deserves, but our work is not yet done.”

County councilmembers said Tuesday that they are looking into crafting jail and public safety reforms.

“I did promise the family we’re going to look at new reforms,” Pryor said. “I think that’s all they’re asking for, is to be included and to have some type of reform, because this should never happen to anyone ever again. Ever.”

Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano said in a statement that she and other law enforcement officials are working “to develop a model design that is beneficial to treating mental illness with continuum of care.”

“I have taken responsibility for this incident,” Graziano said. “This was a disastrous set of circumstances that led to the unfortunate loss of Jamal Sutherland.”

Sutherland’s death occurred just a day after Graziano, who pledged a slew of reforms to reshape the 900-person department and build community trust, was sworn in as sheriff.

Graziano has since fired two deputies involved in the case, Lindsay Fickett and Brian Houle. Protesters in Charleston have called for Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson to charge the deputies with murder or recuse herself from the case, news outlets reported.

Wilson, who is now consulting outside experts after receiving the official law enforcement and autopsy reports on Sutherland’s death, has not yet indicated whether she will pursue charges in the case.

The $10 million settlement is among one of the more expensive payouts to families of those killed by police across the country. By comparison, North Charleston, South Carolina, paid $6.5 million in 2015 to the family of Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man who was killed by white police Officer Michael T. Slager as Scott ran after a traffic stop. Slager later pleaded guilty to a civil rights violation.