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Prosecutor: No charges in SC jail death due to poor training

Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she could not prove that deputies intended to kill Jamal Sutherland

Jamal Sutherland protesters SC

Elijah Whiteside leads protesters 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 January death of Jamal Sutherland be charged.

Lauren Petracca/The Post And Courier via AP

Associated Press
By Jeffrey Collins

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A South Carolina prosecutor decided Monday not to charge two jail employees who stunned a mentally ill Black man 10 times and kneeled on his back until he stopped breathing, calling the officers’ videotaped actions “damning,” but not against the law.

The Charleston County deputies in January were following their aggressive training in handling inmates, so Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she could not prove they intended to kill Jamal Sutherland, who at the time was refusing to go to his bond hearing.

“This is how they were trained, and they didn’t have a reason to expect this outcome because they had done it so many times before,” said Wilson, who issued a report with links to video footage and other information.

That training, which Wilson said created a “militaristic culture” at the jail, included going in cells of uncooperative inmates with shotguns with less than lethal rounds, shocking them with Tasers or spraying them with pepper spray and using holds that can restrict breathing. They only briefly touched on calming inmates down or leaving them alone, according to an expert report Wilson asked for.

Prior to the incident, the same deputies spent 15 minutes trying to talk Sutherland into voluntarily going to the hearing and asked supervisors if they could do something other than attack him. But they got no help, so Wilson said the deputies did what they were trained to do — use the Taser or pepper spray.

A federal investigation remains open to see if Sutherland’s civil rights were violated, officials said.

Sutherland, 31, had been booked in the Charleston County jail the day before his death on a misdemeanor after officers arrested him while investigating a fight at a mental health and substance abuse center. His death gained national attention after county officials released video of the incident months later.

Charleston County Detention Center Sgt. Lindsay Fickett and detention Deputy Brian Houle were fired four months after Sunderland’s death. Charleston County agreed to pay a $10 million settlement to Sutherland’s family.

Sutherland’s family said they were frustrated at the decision not to charge the employees and even angrier that jail employees were allowed to treat inmates so badly for so long.

“Twelve years of the same training, of the same policy — the rogue training — what did you think was going to happen? But does that make it a crime? I don’t know. Apparently not,” family attorney Mark Peper said,
Sutherland’s mother said she was angry at laws that don’t protect or help the mentally ill while protecting officers who obviously do wrong.

“I’m mad at her. But not justly, because she didn’t write the laws,” Amy Sutherland said of Wilson’s decision not to charge the employees.

In the videos released in May, a deputy enters Sutherland’s cell, trying to handcuff him. The deputies stun him and, with the electrodes still on Sutherland, a second officer fires the stun gun again.

Sutherland can be heard saying, “I’m not resisting, officer.”

Sutherland was eventually placed in handcuffs with a deputy’s knee on his back for more than two minutes. “I can’t breathe,” Sutherland said.

Officials are later shown performing CPR, and Sutherland appears to be unresponsive. One deputy says, “He got tased probably about six to eight times, at least.”

Wilson and her expert spent an hour briefing reporters on the case. She called the official videos of Sutherland’s death damning, disturbing and upsetting.

“We know what the deputies did. The question is why did they do it? What were they thinking? What were they feeling? What was their criminal intent? And that’s getting into someone’s mind,” Wilson said.

Wilson said the investigation into the death itself also hampered her. The pathologist initially ruled Sutherland died from heart problems and he saw nothing in the videos that concerned him. The initial interviews of the two deputies did not delve into what they were thinking.

The solicitor hired Gary Raney, an expert who has studied more than 50 use of force and in-custody deaths, to review Sutherland’s killing.

Raney said the officers did not give the pepper spray enough time to work before charging Sutherland.
Raney’s report also sharply criticized the policies the jail used to get inmates out of cells. He said they depended too heavily on violence and coercion and too little on communications and avoidance.

“You can shoot bullets in the air 99 times and nothing would ever happen. But the 100th time could kill somebody,” Raney said.

Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano was sworn into office the day after Sutherland’s death. She has promised wide ranging changes in jail operations and how mentally ill inmates are treated.

At a news conference after Wilson’s announcement, Amy Sutherland called for the governor, state lawmakers and local leaders to put more money into treating people with mental illness. She said every group her son dealt with from the jail deputies to the people at the mental treatment center who called officers in the first place after he voluntarily sought help is responsible for his death.

“Being mentally ill is a crime in this state. There’s no help. There’s no money,” Amy Sutherland said. “If it started right, it would have ended right.”