Bobbi O'Neal determined Jamal Sutherland's manner of death as homicide

Jamal Sutherland’s January death in county jail has been ruled a homicide, the Charleston County coroner said Wednesday. The determination is the latest in the investigation into why Sutherland, a Black man who was seeking treatment for mental illness, died while in law enforcement custody in early January.

“As the elected coroner, I owe it to Jamal to do a complete and thorough medical, legal death investigation,” coroner Bobbi O’Neal. said during a press conference Wednesday.

Previously, Sutherland’s manner of death was undetermined, as officials gathered information.

The manner of death is separate to the cause of death, O’Neal clarified during a press conference Wednesday afternoon. Manner of death is a medical definition, rather than a legal one, meaning that although her opinion is that Sutherland died due to homicide, there is no determination on whether the killing was unlawful.

According to O’Neal, the cause of death of is a fatal heart dysrhythmia, or an abnormal heart rhythm with numerous potential causes, including Sutherland’s excited state; a change in baseline prescribed medications with a known potential risk of causing heart dysrhythmia; and the subdual process by which police restrained Sutherland in his cell, including multiple electrical shocks and the use of chemical agents.

O’Neal said that during the physical autopsy of Sutherland’s body, only one punctual wound, similar to those that would be caused by the metal barbs of a Taser, were found, leading her to believe that further use of the weapons could have latched onto clothing, which forensic experts say would not have negatively affected Sutherland.

O’Neal’s office is still awaiting additional results, which would be shared first with the Sutherland family. The information, she said, would likely not change her determination of the manner of death, but would rather offer added insights into the circumstances leading up to it.

“This information is very important that we have a picture — that we have all the circumstances,” O’Neal said. “We owe that to Jamal, and that information can be used in a number of ways by the Sutherland family. It could be used to increase awareness about how we prevent this in the future.”

Awaited results are expected by the coroner’s office in the next couple of weeks.

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