Charleston County deputies were negligent but acted in accordance with training as they restrained Jamal Sutherland before he died in their custody Jan. 5, 2021, the Charleston-area prosecutor said Monday, explaining that no charges would be brought. Sutherland’s family, at a press conference, questioned a criminal justice system that allowed their loved one to die and no one face direct consequences: “Justice was denied,” his mother said.
In a report released Monday, Charleston-area Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said that two deputies shown using a stun gun and pepper spray against Sutherland were doing what they were trained to do, but did not amount to a criminal offense.
Wilson lamented that her hands were tied by the laws of the state, but in her assessment, said the facts of the case meant a conviction was unlikely.
“The deputies’ tactics during the cell extraction were flawed. They were negligent but they also complied with much of their training, policy and procedures,” she said. “For now, in this case, it would be impossible for any prosecutor to argue in a courtroom that the deputies acted with the requisite criminal intent by following their training.”
The two deputies involved, Lindsay Fickett and Brian Houle, were fired May 18 after initially being put on administrative leave following the fatal event.
Jamal Sutherland’s death has already been held up as evidence the local criminal justice system isn’t equipped to handle patients seeking treatment for mental illness. On Jan. 4, Jamal Sutherland was at Palmetto Behavioral Health where his family took him to receive treatment for mental illness when he was said to have been involved in a fight. Arrested by North Charleston police and booked in the county jail, Sutherland died in its behavioral management unit the next morning as specially trained deputies attempted to restrain and subdue him to take him to a bond hearing.
“The jail has no concept of taking care of anybody. Their job is to kill,” said Amy Sutherland, Jamal’s mother, at a press conference in North Charleston Monday afternoon. “And so, somebody did their job.”
Amy Sutherland said at first she was upset with Wilson’s decision, but said the prosecutor did what she set out to do in evaluating the case.
“She’s been saying to my family that the laws have to change,” Amy Sutherland said. “South Carolina is the last state for everything. We don’t do things like everybody else. You come into this state and you say, ‘Oh my god. What year is this, 1960?’ Because he was lynched … Everybody sat and watched. He was lynched.”
But Amy Sutherland said she knew her son’s death would not be in vain.
“Jamal’s death will help mentally ill people. Jamal’s death will most definitely help people who don’t understand the system and don’t know where to get help,” she said.
Those were sentiments echoed in Wilson’s assessment, released Monday.
“I hope this report and the underlying investigation will bring about much needed change in how our detention center operates and in how mentally ill citizens are treated in our community,” she wrote.
In a post on Medium.com over the weekend, Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano, who took office the day Sutherland died, said some changes are already being implemented to help people who may need treatment.
“Now, if an agency brings a resident to the detention center, and it appears they are in a crisis, they are evaluated by our mobile crisis unit before they are processed and booked in our jail. We have turned away residents to be sent to medical facilities because that was the more appropriate setting for stabilization,” she wrote.
Federal charges could still come from the federal Department of Justice, said Sutherland family attorney Mark Peper, saying their investigation was “full steam ahead” as of Monday morning. One avenue for federal prosecution could be civil rights violations, he said.
In South Carolina, Peper said adding an excessive force law could go a long way to making sure people are held accountable when deadly incidents like Jamal Sutherland’s occur. A bill adding an excessive force statute was introduced by North Charleston state Reps. Marvin Pendarvis and J.A. Moore during the last week of session this year, and could be taken up again when the legislature returns in January.
“If you’re sitting at home saying, ‘Nothing’s gonna change.’ You’re wrong. Just watch. We’re gonna change the laws of this state,” he said.