Activists gathered to call for justice in wake of Sutherland death this year | Photo by Sam Spence

The past year might not have been as hectic as 2020, but that’s not saying too much. Between a tough local reckoning on police reform, COVID-19’s fast reemergence, a major landmark downtown hotel passing into local hands and a ripped-from-the-headlines whodunit, 2021 has given us plenty to talk about in Charleston. Like you, we’re hoping for all this chaos to give way to serious local progress on important issues.

Here are five of the biggest stories that impacted Charleston in 2021:

Jamal Sutherland’s death sparks months of civil rights conversations, legal battle

A video released May 13 showed the final minutes of the life of Jamal Sutherland, a 31-year-old Black man from Goose Creek who had been receiving mental health treatment when he was arrested and transported to the Al Cannon Detention Center. 

Among the more than two dozen videos released were those that showed Sutherland become unresponsive after two deputies involved, Lindsay Fickett and Brian Houle, deployed stun guns, gas and used physical restraint in an attempt to subdue the man who was due in bond court the morning of Jan. 5 on suspicion of misdemeanor assault at a psychiatric hospital.

Charleston-area Solicitor Scarlett Wilson in a July report said the deputies were doing what they were trained to do, which did not amount to a criminal offense.

“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 in the report. “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.”

Months later, Sutherland’s family reached a $10 million settlement with Charleston County, hired prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump — who represented the family of George Floyd in 2020 — and vowed to continue pushing reform. Sutherland’s mother, Amy Sutherland, said she wouldn’t stop fighting until something changed.

New districts redefine representation in Charleston area

The once-a-decade process to redraw political districts nationwide will impact who represents Charleston in D.C., Columbia and even in city hall on Broad Street. The new districts drawn up by Republicans in the state legislature — based on the 2020 census count — drew criticism from equal-rights and voting groups. The approved state Senate map, which adds a new district spread across downtown, West Ashley and James Island, was less-criticized, but still carves out winnable seats for Republicans.

Newly approved S.C. House districts provide even more comfort for incumbent and prospective Republican legislators. In Charleston, district lines separate communities according to race, creating some of the most-white districts in an overall diverse city. In all, the state League of Women Voters said 12 of the state’s 124 districts would be competitive with the new lines.

The in-progress congressional maps remain mostly unchanged except for in the area around Charleston. With the 1st Congressional District, previously represented by ex-Congressman Joe Cunningham, set to suck up fast-growing white, suburban areas of Berkeley County, making the district even tougher for a Democrat to win, Cunningham sat before state senators earlier this month, saying, “If gerrymandering was art, this plan would be a Picasso.”

Charleston Place Hotel sold to local billionaire

Torrey Wiley/Flickr

The city’s most prominent hotel, the Charleston Place, was sold in August to the family of local billionaire Ben Navarro from international hotelier Belmond.

Navarro, who made his fortune in the debt-collection industry, is pouring his family’s millions into the landmark hotel to reinvent it as a locally owned downtown destination. Longtime one of downtown’s go-to luxury hotels, especially for business travelers, Navarro’s new company, Beemok Hospitality, has said it plans a multi-year renovation of the property, which opened in 1986 and includes multiple restaurants, retail space, a spa and conference space.

A sale price was not disclosed, but sources told the City Paper in June the 433-room hotel was on the block for up to $500 million — $1.2 million per room.

“We are extraordinarily proud to call Charleston our home, and thrilled about the opportunity to become a steward of this incredible property,” Navarro said in a press release.

Proposed sea wall project to safeguard peninsula draws scrutiny

The City of Charleston is considering extreme steps to protect the peninsula from rising seas, strengthening storms and more frequent flooding of downtown streets. 

Flooding caused by hurricane Irma in 2017 | Photo by Dustin Waters

A proposal, debuted by the Army Corps of Engineers in October 2019, called for a wall around the Charleston peninsula to mitigate damage from storm surges, but which not prevent “nuisance flooding.” But the proposed wall could also inherently alleviate tidal flooding.

“I think the biggest, the most important issue for Charleston, at this stage, isn’t so much about what it’s going to look like, or specifically where it’s located,” civil and environmental engineer Joshua Robinson told the City Paper in a January 2020 report. “I think the bigger question, and the fundamental question is, what’s it going to do?”

Rendering of the Battery with a low seawall | Courtesy Charleston Civic Center

The $1.1 billion project calls for an 8-mile-long, 12-foot-high wall to combat the rise in surge flooding. Models predict the wall could protect downtown from a storm surge of up to 12 feet. To put that into perspective, downtown experienced a 9.39-foot storm surge during Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

The price is already down from a near-$2 billion proposal.

Under the current proposal, the city of Charleston would contribute 35%, or $384.5 million, to the project, with the remainder coming from federal funds. 

As of October, City officials have said they are getting into the logistics of how the wall would be constructed, as public comment and planning periods have ended. 

COVID-19 makes a rebound, spearheaded by delta variant

A resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic, led by the highly infectious delta variant, swept across the Palmetto State in July, peaking in early September with more than 4,000 cases confirmed in a single day on Sept. 11.

The wave brought more than just illness; however, with heated debates about masking and vaccination mandates taking over city council and school board meetings for months. Protesters lined streets and shouted down public officials who supported measures designed to protect the city from infection. 

It wasn’t all bad news. Health professionals had learned from the first wave and were more prepared to handle the influx of patients in hospitals. And this time around, vaccines were widely available and accessible. 

“Complete vaccination is the number one way to stifle the impact of the delta variant,” a spokesperson from the Department of Health and Environmental Control told the City Paper in a July report. “Low statewide vaccination rates allow the virus to continue to mutate and new, more significant variants to spread.”

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said that while COVID-19 had been a “mandatory pandemic,” one without a clear path out of, what the delta variant brought was an optional pandemic — one that the public can “opt out of” by getting vaccinated.

WORTH A MENTION

S.C. lawyer makes national headlines, faces 48 charges

Murdaugh mug shot

A whirlwind string of tragic incidents involving the family of Alex Murdaugh, a prominent Hampton County attorney, spawned months-long coverage in national media as the story took multiple strange twists and turns involving a double killing, a fatal boating accident, a botched suicide attempt and multiple charges of financial misconduct. 

The story began with the discovery of the bodies of Alex Murdaugh’s wife Margaret Murdaugh and son Paul Murdaugh, on June 7. Shortly after, the family patriarch, Randolph Murdaugh reportedly died of natural causes. 

Information gleaned from the two separate investigations led to the reopening of a case involving civil conspiracy connecting Paul Murdaugh to a fatal boat crash in 2019 and eventually the shooting of Alex Murdaugh, which was later determined to have been by a hitman hired by Alex Murdaugh himself.

Around the time of the shooting, which left Alex Murdaugh injured, his law firm began reporting missing funds, and an investigation was opened into the 2018 death of the Murdaugh family housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield.

Months later, a state judge on Dec. 10 set a $7 million bond for the now-suspended lawyer, Alex Murdaugh, in a hearing in Richland County on 48 counts of financial misconduct that involved stealing millions from clients. The bond is one of the highest set in state history.

During the hearing, Alex Murdaugh reportedly said he had “tarnished badly” his family’s legacy, and that his actions had “deeply hurt every single person that I cared about.”