‘Justice was denied’: SC family mourns decision not to charge officers in jail death

·3 min read

Amy Sutherland wants her son’s clothes back.

She wants to hold the jacket he was wearing when North Charleston police arrested him from a mental health facility where he was receiving care, and she wants the pair of stripped socks he was ordered to take off the night before he died after being forcibly removed from a Charleston County jail cell.

The jacket was his favorite, she said Monday afternoon, still absorbing the news that no criminal charges would be filed against the two deputies involved in her son’s death.

She stood at a podium that had been set up in the Alfred Williams Community Life Center, the church building in North Charleston where they held her son’s funeral. Then, she asked a question.

“Where is the accountability?” she asked.

The last time the Sutherland family and their attorneys had gathered for a press conference such as this was almost two months ago, after the Charleston County Sheriff’s office released graphic footage that showed South Carolina and the world how their son died.

This time, though, Amy Sutherland did not wipe away a tear.

It was her attorney, Mark Peper, who had to turn his back to the media at the end of the press conference, his hand rubbing the tears that welled in his eyes.

“Justice was denied,” the Sutherland family matriarch said twice.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson on Monday announced she would not pursue criminal charges against the two former deputies involved in Sutherland’s death, detention deputy Brian Houle and detention Sgt. Lindsay Fickett.

The prosecutor, who reviewed of hours of graphic body-camera footage and sought second opinions on both the Sutherland’s cause of death and the use of force by deputies in a corrections setting, took months to reach her conclusion.

Wilson blew past her self-imposed June 30 deadline by 26 days.

And at a Monday afternoon press conference, Wilson spoke for an hour at her downtown Charleston office, where she described Sutherland’s death as a tragedy but said she could not legally prove that there was any criminal intent behind their actions.

Sutherland, 31, died on the morning of Jan. 5 after two Charleston County sheriff’s deputies forcibly removed him from his cell for a scheduled bond hearing.

Footage released by the sheriff’s office shows he was sprayed twice with a chemical irritant and shocked repeatedly with a Taser. Sutherland wailed in pain as he lay face down on the floor, at one point screaming for 34 seconds straight.

Peper, an attorney representing the Sutherland family, circled back to Sutherland’s own final question that could be heard in those videos: “What is the meaning of this?”

“Today’s announcement by Scarlett Wilson is not the answer that Jamal was looking for,” Peper said. “It wasn’t the answer Mr. and Mrs. Sutherland so desperately seek.”

But Peper promised that he will not let Sutherland’s last question fade from Charleston’s collective memory.

Instead, he made a direct appeal to lawmakers to pass a bill that would crack down on excessive use of force in law enforcement.

“Without an excessive force bill in this state, we’ll never know the meaning of this,” Peper said.

He also announced the launch of Justice4Jamal.org, which will act as a platform to advocate around the state, community and country to make sure something like this never happens again.

Amy Sutherland nodded behind him.

Earlier in the press conference she admitted she was angry with Wilson’s decision but said she felt Wilson had done her job.

“I’m angry with her, but not justly, because she didn’t write these laws,” Amy Sutherland said. “The laws have to change. And if the laws have to change, I can’t be mad at her.”

She also addressed the deputies who were cleared of criminal charges.

“Y’all ain’t getting away with nothing. You’re not getting away with anything,” Amy Sutherland said.

She added, “I don’t want you to ever forget what you did to him.”

In the meantime, she said, she will make sure the world never forgets him.