South Carolina county OKs $10 million jail death settlement

·3 min read

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A South Carolina county has agreed to pay $10 million to the family of a man with mental health issues whom deputies forced to the ground on his stomach and repeatedly shot with stun guns and pepper spray before he died in jail this January.

The Charleston County Council voted Tuesday evening to approve the settlement for the family of Jamal Sutherland, a 31-year-old Black man who was booked into the county jail Jan 4.

The agreement comes less than two weeks after county officials released video clips that show deputies attempting to take Sutherland to a bond court appearance the next morning. Video shows that after Sutherland refused to leave his cell, deputies deployed stun guns and knelt on Sutherland’s back before he stopped moving. An hour later, Sutherland was dead, officials reported.

“I am so happy that it was a unanimous decision to do what was right by the Sutherland family,” Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said. “We know that no amount of money will bring their loved one back, but I think this starts the healing process.”

The detailed video has prompted Charleston activists this month to call for broad changes in how law enforcement agencies attend to people with mental illness.

Sutherland was originally booked on charges of third-degree assault and battery, a misdemeanor. His parents had placed him at Palmetto Behavioral Health, a mental health and substance abuse center, for treatment of his schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Officials said they were called to investigate a fight at the center and arrested Sutherland as a result.

Mark Peper, the family's attorney, has previously said that Sutherland's illness was so severe he should never have been held in a nonmedical portion of the jail.

County councilmembers said Tuesday that they are looking into crafting jail and public safety reforms.

“I did promise the family we’re going to look at new reforms,” Pryor said. “I think that’s all they’re asking for, is to be included and to have some type of reform, because this should never happen to anyone ever again. Ever.”

Two deputies involved in the case, Lindsay Fickett and Brian Houle, have been fired. Protesters in Charleston have called for Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson to charge the deputies with murder or recuse herself from the case, news outlets reported.

Wilson, who is now consulting outside experts after receiving the official law enforcement and autopsy reports on Sutherland's death, has not yet indicated whether she will pursue charges in the case.

The $10 million settlement is among one of the more expensive payouts to families of those killed by police across the country. By comparison, North Charleston, South Carolina, paid $6.5 million in 2015 to the family of Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man who was killed by white police Officer Michael T. Slager as Scott ran after a traffic stop. Slager later pleaded guilty to a civil rights violation.

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Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Michelle Liu, The Associated Press

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