Activists demand release of video involving inmate’s death at Charleston County jail

Updated: May. 13, 2021 at 9:03 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Activist groups held a press conference on Thursday demanding the release of video involving the death of an inmate at the Charleston County jail.

The groups, who include the ACLU of South Carolina and Charleston Black Lives Matter, said they are calling for full transparency and accountability in Jamal Sutherland’s death at the Al Cannon Detention Center which continues to be investigated.

The solicitor says Sutherland died after being in jail for just about 12 hours. He was being taken out of his cell to go to a bond hearing but died while being subdued. Sutherland struggled with mental illness, and was brought to the jail by North Charleston police after a fight at a psychiatric facility he was committed to.

During Thursday afternoon’s press conference, the ACLU of South Carolina introduced a list of demands which included that all recordings of the incident be released, and that the law enforcement agencies involved in the incident release their policies and procedures when handling incidents involving mental health crisis.

“Our focus is to demand accountability,” said Fernando Soto of the Charleston Immigration Coalition who also spoke at the presser. ”We want to know who has the decision making power to release the video to the community. We want to know what individuals make up this equation.”

Soto said his coalition played an important role in getting Sheriff Kristin Graziano elected and called on her to call the sheriff’s department accountable.

A representative of Charleston Black Lives Matter said they were standing up for Sutherland and said there was a need not for police officers but for professionals specifically trained to deal with situations involving mental health crisis.

“[The police] are not not trained to do this,” said Marcus McDonald with Charleston Black Lives Matter. “No amount of training will train them to do this. We need professionals to deal with these situations like they have in other places.”

The full press conference can be seen below.

Lawmakers said they are taking action in response to Sutherland’s death with State Representative J.A. Moore filing several bills aimed at preventing future incidents.

City of Charleston officials said on Thursday afternoon that they were communicating with the sheriff’s office in reference to the “rumored release” of the video. Officials said they had communicated with area businesses that as a precaution they had brought in additional officers Thursday afternoon and opened their operations center.

“We do expect some spontaneous demonstrations but as of now there is no information,” city officials said Thursday afternoon.

Sutherland died on the morning of Jan. 5, Charleston County Coroner Bobbi Jo O’Neal said. The investigation into Sutherland’s death remains open and is still active, O’Neal said.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said her investigation, based on a report from the State Law Enforcement Division, found that Sutherland became unresponsive and died after Charleston County deputies in the jail worked to forcibly remove him from his jail cell so that he could attend a bond hearing for a misdemeanor assault charge.

Pathologist J.C. Upshaw Downs ruled the manner of Sutherland’s death as “undetermined,” but said he died “as a result of excited state with pharmacotherapeutic effect during subdual process,” according to a release from Wilson’s office.

The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office has not as yet released footage from inside the jail. Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano said Tuesday those recordings had not yet been released for several reasons, “including deference to the Sutherland family.”

“Presently, the family is not ready for the public to see the recordings of the death of their loved one, and I am honoring their wishes,” Graziano said in the statement. “I support releasing the video to the public when the time is appropriate.”

The sheriff also cited several ongoing investigations, both internal and external.

Jamal Sutherland, 31, died Tuesday while in custody at the Al Cannon Detention Center.
Jamal Sutherland, 31, died Tuesday while in custody at the Al Cannon Detention Center.(Provided)

Sutherland’s death came hours after North Charleston Police transported him from Palmetto Lowcountry Behavioral Health Center to the Al Cannon Detention Center.

Police responded to the facility after staff members called 911 on the night of Jan. 4 to report “a large-scale fight had erupted between patients and staff and that staff urgently needed help from law enforcement,” North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said.

Summey released a video Wednesday that included audio clips from the 911 call and body cam footage from North Charleston Police officers showing them taking Sutherland into custody. Body cam footage ends as Sutherland is being escorted with a nurse into the Al Cannon Detention Center.

Summey says when North Charleston officers last had Sutherland in their sight, “he was healthy” and was being accompanied by a nurse as he went into the jail.

“It brings me sorrow to know that Jamal passed away the following day on Jan. 5, but I am relieved that video and audio exists to let us see the respect and patience that North Charleston Police Officers displayed that night,” Summey said. “While Jamal’s family continues to grieve his passing, I hope our recordings of the interaction gives the family and the community confidence in the way we conducted ourselves.”

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