No charges against deputies involved in Charleston jail death of Jamal Sutherland

·4 min read

Jail deputies who repeatedly fired their Tasers at a mentally ill Black man shortly before he died inside the Al Cannon Detention Center will not face criminal charges, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson announced Monday.

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. The deputies involved in the incident were detention deputy Brian Houle and detention Sgt. Lindsay Fickett.

“Based on the facts and the law, I know that the evidence would not support convictions of Lindsey Fickett, or Brian Houle,” Wilson said in her 23-page report on Jamal Sutherland’s death.

However, she also stressed that Sutherland died through no fault of his own.

“The heartbreaking fact is that Mr. Sutherland’s death was entirely avoidable,” Wilson wrote. “With better treatment, care and concern by all the institutions involved, Jamal Sutherland would not have died the way he did on January 5.”

In explaining the basis of her decision, Wilson said her decision was based on her almost 30 years of experience as a prosecutor.

“I approached this case and applied the same standard based on the facts and the law as I would when considering criminal charges in any matter,” Wilson wrote in her report.

The Charleston County Coroner’s Office initially ruled Sutherland’s death as “undetermined” and said he died “as a result of excited state with pharmacotherapeutic effect during subdual process.” It was later decided that his manner of death was, instead, “homicide.”

That decision does not carry a legal conclusion. Charleston County Coroner Bobbi Jo O’Neal said when a death is not natural, homicide is one of the permissible classifications of death. The others are accident, suicide and undetermined.

O’Neal has said Sutherland likely died of a cardiac event. More specifically, she said it appears Sutherland died of an abnormal heart rhythm, also known as a fatal dysrhythmia.

For months, details surrounding Sutherland’s death were unknown. But in May, Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano released graphic footage showing what happened. The public dissemination of dozens of videos came after months of mounting public pressure calling for their release.

Wilson, whose office reviewed the case, said she could not conclude that the officers had committed a crime.

Her decision came after Wilson investigated the findings of the State Law Enforcement Division. Along with the SLED report, Wilson sought a second opinion on Sutherland’s manner of death and requested an expert opinion and advice about use of force in a detention setting.

In mid-July, Wilson said the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office had handed over 162 gigabytes of information on the detention deputies involved in Sutherland’s jail death.

For a person to be held criminally responsible for another person’s death, Wilson has previously said, the state must prove that unlawful conduct was the proximate, or direct, cause of death.

Sutherland was booked into the jail on Jan. 4 after an alleged fight at Palmetto Lowcountry Behavioral Health Center, a mental health facility where Sutherland was receiving care for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He was arrested by North Charleston Police.

During Sutherland’s encounter with the two jail officers on Jan. 5, footage shows he was sprayed twice with a chemical irritant and shocked repeatedly with a stun gun. Sutherland wailed in pain as he lay face down on the floor, at one point screaming for 34 seconds straight.

As Sutherland lay on the floor with deputies on top of him, their knees pressed into his back, Sutherland at one point can be heard saying, “I can’t breathe.”

As medics tend to Sutherland, Houle can be heard telling medical staff members, “He got tased about probably six to eight times at least.”

“Oh my god,” a member of the medical staff responded.

“He kept fighting us through,” Houle said in the video.

According to information provided by the sheriff’s office after the Jan. 5 death, Houle was employed with the agency since July 2016. Fickett, who could be seen kneeling on Sutherland’s back in video footage, had worked for the sheriff’s office since March 2011.

They were fired by Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano on May 17.

Facing questions about their employment during a May 14 press conference, Graziano said Houle and Fickett had been placed on paid administrative leave for 30 days after Sutherland’s death.

The deputies then returned to work in desk jobs where they had no contact with the jail population, Graziano said at the time.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.