'What's the Meaning of This?' No Charges Against Charleston Detention Officers in the Death of a Black, Mentally Ill Inmate
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson says Jamal Sutherland did everything he was supposed to do.
The 31-year-old acknowledged his struggles with schizophrenia and checked into a North Charleston mental health facility. But quickly realized he was getting worse, not better.
“It’s so sad that before this happened, about 24 hours before he was killed, Jamal Sutherland tried to check himself out of that facility,” says Solicitor Wilson.
What happened next, she says, was error after error that lead to Sutherland’s death in January.
Sutherland's Arrest and Death
A fight broke out at the mental health facility. Sutherland was arrested and taken to the Al Cannon Detention Center. There, the then inmate who is Black is seen on body cam video being pulled from his jail cell by two white detention officers for a bond hearing on a misdemeanor charge that carries 30 days.
Sutherland is pepper sprayed and shocked 10 times with a taser. He’s confused, scared and at one point asks, “What’s the meaning of this?”.
Sutherland’s body eventually goes limp. He’s pronounced dead at the jail. Solicitor Wilson says she can’t shake the images.
“We know what the deputies did,” she says. “The question is why did they do it? What were they thinking?”
Was there criminal intent?
The Solicitor's Investigation
That is the question Solicitor Wilson has been trying to answer for more than seven months, since Sutherland’s death January 5th. She says her investigation shows one of the two detention officers involved, Deputy Brian Houle, did express concerns.
“When he met Jamal, he goes to his supervisor and says, ‘I don’t want to do this. I don’t think it’s a good idea. Don’t make me do this.'"
She says Deputy Houle was ordered not once, but twice, to forcibly remove Sutherland from his cell, despite his reservations. He was alone in the task and asked Sgt. Lindsay Fickett for help.
“There's an old saying, 'If all you have is a hammer every problem is a nail'", says Gary Raney. He’s a nationally known expert in the use of excessive force in jails who consulted Solicitor Wilson on the case.
He says he was shocked to find tactics adopted by the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office in 2008 that relied heavily on aggression rather than de-escalation. Raney, in law enforcement for nearly 40 years, works as a federal monitor for a 6,000-bed facility in California known for gangs and frequent violence.
“That jail does not have a full-time tactical team that uses the weapons and the approach that the sheriff’s office used here,” says Raney.
To Charge or Not to Charge?
Together, Raney and Solicitor Wilson put together more than 70 pages of documents detailing the findings of their investigation.
Raney concluded the detention officers, while negligent, were doing what they were trained and told to do. They'd probably done so dozens, if not hundreds of times, without incident. Solicitor Wilson decided she cannot prove criminal intent beyond a reasonable doubt and will not file charges.
It’s bitter news for a family that wants justice for Jamal.
“We keep saying the same thing over and over,” says Amy Sutherland, Jamal’s mother. “We don’t know their mind. We don’t know their intent. I don’t care what their intent is. Jamal is dead. Nobody helped him.”
What's the Meaning of This?
Amy Sutherland says, yes, she is angry. But she doesn’t blame the solicitor. She supports Solicitor Wilson’s call for excessive force legislation like other states have to help hold officers accountable.
“To the officers that killed Jamal, all I can say is God have mercy on them.”
Amy Sutherland is still trying to answer the question her son asked before his death, “What’s the meaning of this?”
She wonders what, if any good could come from her loss. She’s hopeful an FBI investigation will lead to civil rights charges and promises to fight for the rights of the mentally ill.
Amy Sutherland also wants the newly elected sheriff to fulfill her campaign promise of reforming the detention officer. Jamal died during Sheriff Kristin Graziano’s first full day on the job. The sheriff says the days of intimidation and escalation at the jail are over.
Sheriff Promises Change
“This went on for years,” says Sheriff Graziano. “People tried to blow the whistle and the administration condoned it. They accepted it. They really celebrated it.”
Sheriff Graziano hasn’t spoken publicly about the investigation until now. She says she stumbled across old training videos that appear to show detention officers being hazed and immediately turned them over to the solicitor.
The sheriff insists top detention leaders are gone and officers who see something are now encouraged to say something.
While the detention officers who forcibly removed Jamal Sutherland have not been charged, Sheriff Graziano points out she did fire them after body cam video was released in May. She believes Deputy Houle and Sgt. Fickett had a bigger responsibility than following orders.
“You have the ability to make independent decisions and you could have stopped despite the people behind you, who supervise you, not telling you to stop.”
Detention officers, she says, have a responsibility to do what’s right.