Deputies not charged in jail death of mentally ill man
BY STEVE GARRISON, RICKEY DENNIS, ADAM PARKER and THOMAS NOVELLY, The Post and Courier
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson has determined her office would not charge two Charleston County jail deputies involved in the death earlier this year of Jamal Sutherland.
Sutherland, a 31-year-old mentally ill Black man, died as Charleston County detention deputies Brian Houle and Lindsay Fickett tried to forcefully remove him from a jail cell on Jan. 5 for a bond hearing.
Houle and Fickett used pepper spray, Tasers and physical force to eventually pull him from the cell to attend the hearing. He died following the officers’ struggle with the dying man. Wilson said on July 26 “error after error after error” led to Sutherland’s death, including “clear negligence” by deputies.
Still, because there was no criminal intent, she said she’s unable to charge them.
“There is no question they were negligent,” Wilson said. “There is negligence throughout this case. The problem in proving the criminal intent, however, is that this is how they were trained.”
A 52-page report from Gary Raney, a correctional use-offorce expert who was hired by the solicitor’s office to review the case, outlined the systemic failures in policies, training and supervision at the detention center that contributed to Sutherland’s death.
Raney said at a news conference, Houle and Fickett, as well as other current and former deputies in the jail’s Special Operations Group, were poorly trained and operating based on practices that would be unheard of in any other correctional facility in the country.
He said the special team had performed cell extractions many times in the past; this just happened to be the time someone died as a result of those failures.
Wilson said even the lowestlevel offense she could charge, involuntary manslaughter, required that prosecutors prove the deputies showed a “conscious disregard” for the risk that Sutherland could die. Houle told a supervisor that he did not believe Sutherland should be extracted from his cell, but he was ordered to do so anyway, which indicated Houle did not wish to harm Sutherland.
Wilson said she asked the U.S. Department of Justice in April to review Sutherland’s death for possible civil rights violations. She said she has been sharing information with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI about the matter. The case remains under investigation, she said.
Sutherland, who had no prior criminal history, was being held on the charge of thirddegree assault and battery, a misdemeanor, on allegations he got into a fight at Palmetto Behavioral Health. If found guilty, he would have faced up to 30 days in jail. His parents checked him into the mentalhealth treatment center for symptoms related to his bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Graphic video of Sutherland’s death was released in May, prompting protests over the deputies’ rough handling of Sutherland, who appeared to be suffering a mental health episode during the encounter. Houle and Fickett were fired that same month.
On May 25, the Charleston County Council approved a $10 million settlement to resolve claims against the Sheriff’s Office and the North Charleston Police Department related to Sutherland’s death.
At a news conference after Wilson’s announcement, Amy Sutherland, Jamal’s mother, blamed the state for her son’s death. Enabled by South Carolina’s “racist laws,” she said the state’s jails have no understanding of how to properly care for inmates.
“What year is this?” she asked. “1960? I sat and watched him die. … Being mentally ill is a crime in this state.”
Mark Peper, an attorney representing the Sutherland family, called on the state Legislature to pass an excessiveforce bill, which could give South Carolina solicitors necessary tools to hold officers accountable.
“When you go back to session next year, do it in Jamal’s name,” Peper said. “Make meaningful change.”
Peper was also hopeful about the federal investigation into civil rights violations at the jail.
“They have a toolbox that is far greater,” Peper said about the U.S. Department of Justice.
Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano declined to comment on the solicitor’s decision.
Sutherland’s death sparked fierce reactions from South Carolina politicians, especially in the wake of racial justice protests and talks of police reform in Washington.
U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, RCharleston, was shaken when she first saw the video of Sutherland’s death. She was upset no criminal charges were filed.
“I’m frustrated and disappointed that there were no charges made,” Mace said. “A man lost his life due to the failures of the Charleston County Detention Center. I certainly hope the sheriff is paying attention, and that she will not rehire any individual who contributed to the death, whether intentional or not, of this young man.”
Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, DNorth Charleston, said he and Rep. JA Moore, D-North Charleston, met with Wilson a month and half ago to talk about the Sutherland case.
“She prepared us about the difficulties, the legalities of coming up with charges,” Pendarvis said. She told them she did not want to press charges if she couldn’t be reasonably sure she would prevail.
So Pendarvis said he is not surprised by the decision, though he is disappointed.
The bigger problem is the protocol embedded within the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, he said.
He wondered why none of the deputies involved in Sutherland’s death paused a moment to consider the consequences of their actions, to ask “what exactly is the objective here?”
But the video seemed to show deputies who believed they were acting appropriately, Pendarvis said.
“This is an opportunity to renew calls to have some excessive-force statute on the books,” he said. “In South Carolina, we don’t have the laws that will penalize this kind of conduct.”
Some legislators likely would provide support, even as law enforcement resists such reform, he said.
Moore said Sutherland was not treated like a human being, but like an animal.
“It speaks to a system that too often shows no mercy to people with mental illness or people of color,” Moore said.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said he didn’t have enough information to say whether the solicitor made the right decision in not charging the deputies. Still, Summey said there needs to be additional training on how law enforcement deals with people with mental health issues.
Hopefully, Sutherland’s death will help bring about those necessary changes, Summey said.
Nobody has notified the city about plans to hold a public protest, but he is prepared for possible demonstrations, the mayor said.
No permits for a protest have been filed in Charleston, according to city spokesman Jack O’Toole.
Pastor Thomas Dixon said he was “disturbed” by Wilson’s decision not to prosecute the deputies. He said there is a level of common sense that law enforcement officers must possess, as well as a “moral compass.”
Houle and Fickett showed a “depraved indifference” to Sutherland’s well-being during the cell extraction, for which they should be punished, Dixon said.
Others were complicit in Sutherland’s death, Dixon said, including the superior officers who ordered Houle to perform the cell extraction, despite his reservations, and the officials who created the dangerous policies and procedures that made excessive force routine at the facility.
“They are all complicit,” he said.
James Johnson, executive director of the Racial Justice Network, has been in close contact with the Sutherland family and knows how disappointed they are now, he said.
“Everybody who saw that video knew that was excessive force,” he said.
He said Wilson had signaled for months she was unlikely to press charges, preferring to “scapegoat” the county rather than try to prosecute a criminal case.
“The bottom line is she did not want to charge these officers,” Johnson said. “It’s a slap in the face of every Black person in the state of South Carolina.”
Charleston County Coroner Bobbi Jo O’Neal ruled Sutherland’s death a homicide in June. She said three factors led to Sutherland’s death: his excited state, a change in his medication while he was at Palmetto Behavioral Health, and the “subdual force” used by deputies to extract him from his jail cell, which included tear gas, Taser shocks and physical force.
Wilson was expected to make a decision on whether to charge the deputies at the end of last month. She deferred, stating she needed more time to review and collect evidence in the criminal investigation. A coalition of Charlestonarea activist groups, including the ACLU, Black Liberation Fund and Charleston Activist Network, has called for sweeping reforms in response to Sutherland’s death.
Graziano announced this weekend she had implemented eight policies at the county jail to change the way employees respond to inmates who have mental health challenges.
Among other changes, Graziano announced citizens in a mental crisis after arrest will be evaluated by a crisis unit before being booked into the jail. Detention officers have also been directed to deescalate and disengage when an inmate becomes combative or uncooperative, and inmates can exercise their right to refuse a bond hearing without appearing in court.