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SC News

Family of Souith Carolina man killed in jail want hate crime law

Hate Crimes-South Carolina
Jeffrey Collins/AP
James Sutherland calls on South Carolina lawmakers to pass bills written after his son died when jail officers shocked him several times and kneeled on his back, at a news conference on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

The parents of a mentally ill Black man who died in a South Carolina jail after he was shocked by employees who kneeled on his back until he stopped breathing are calling for state lawmakers to pass both a hate crimes law and a bill specifying excessive force by officers is illegal.

Jamal Sutherland's parents appeared Wednesday with members of the Black Legislative Caucus who are unhappy the proposals have stalled in the General Assembly.

"These bills will bring accountability. Accountability brings consequences. And consequences bring behavior change," James Sutherland said.

The South Carolina House passed a bill last year allowing prosecutors to seek additional prison time for anyone who commits a violent crime fueled by hatred of the victim's race, sexual orientation, gender, religion or disability. South Carolina and Wyoming are the only states without a hate crimes law.

The bill passed the House after a long, tenacious fight and made it to the Senate floor. But senators have made no effort to take it up. The clock is ticking — if the bill doesn't pass before the General Assembly's session ends in May, the hate crime proposal goes back to square one.

Ten senators, all Republican, have a written objection to the bill which makes it difficult to debate. Republican Senate leaders have said a hate crimes law is unnecessary because there are already punishments for crimes like murder and assault and a federal hate crimes law took care of the most egregious cases, like the killing of nine Black church members in a racist attack on a Charleston church.

The bill is called the " Clementa C. Pinckney Hate Crimes Act " after the pastor and state senator killed with his parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in 2015.

Longtime civil rights advocate the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers said it is absurd the hate crime bill still sits in the Senate.

"There is no middle ground in this. You are either for it or you are against it. Why are you supporting hate? Who would stand on the side of hate?" Rivers said.

Jamal Sutherland's parents also called for the General Assembly to pass two bills filed after his death. One would specifically make using excessive force when arresting or detaining someone a crime.

Prosecutor Scarlet Wilson called the actions of the jail officers "damning," but said they were not against the law because the officers were following their poor training to be aggressive with inmates and the state had no specific excessive force law. The officers were fired.

Sutherland, 31, had been booked in the Charleston County jail the day before his death in January 2021 on a misdemeanor after officers arrested him while investigating a fight at a mental health and substance abuse center. His death gained national attention after county officials released video of the incident months later.

The second bill supported by Sutherland's family would ban the use of force to get a mentally ill person to attend a bond hearing and require a mental health evaluation if someone appears to need one before a bond hearing.

Amy Sutherland asked for lawmakers to pass the bill named for her son so she can have some comfort that another mother won't suffer like she has.

"I have to relive it over and over because my state wont do the right thing," she said.

The family also called for state or federal prosecutors to review the decision by local prosecutors not to charge the jail officers.

Wilson has said the law left her no choice but not to charge the officers, but she welcomes any review and appreciates the family's resolve and perseverance.

Rivers, standing with about a dozen lawmakers, said his decades of fighting for civil rights in South Carolina leaves him sad, but not surprised that the state is one of the last to have a hate crimes law.

"Why is it so hard, always so hard in South Carolina to do what's right? We just can't get a vote," Rivers said. "We have to fight, we have to plead, we have to march, we have to protest because in South Carolina doing what's right is a hard thing."