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Letters reveal why Sheriff Graziano fired deputies months after Jamal Sutherland’s death

Updated: May. 21, 2021 at 7:49 PM EDT
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NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Newly released documents show why two Charleston County Sheriff’s Office employees were fired months after Jamal Sutherland’s death inside Charleston County’s detention center.

The May 17 letters from Sheriff Kristin Graziano to Detention Sergeant Lindsay Fickett and Detention Deputy Brian Houle do not specifically address the actions taken by the two deputies on Jan. 5 at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston.

“As you know, CCSO is continuing its investigation into the events surrounding the death of Jamal Southerland [sic] while in custody [on] January 5. 2021,” Graziano wrote. “Although our findings and conclusions are not yet final as the investigation is on-going, it has become evident that your continued employment at the jail at this time has resulted in extreme disruption of operations which has to [sic] potential to jeopardize other residents, personnel and citizens.”

Sutherland, a 31-year-old Goose Creek resident, was repeatedly tased at the detention center less than a day after being arrested by North Charleston Police on a misdemeanor assault and battery charge at a facility serving people with mental illnesses. He died shortly after being extracted from his jail cell.

No charges have been filed against Fickett, Houle, or any other individuals in connection with Sutherland’s death. Fickett and Houle were put on administrative leave on Jan. 5 and were later placed on administrative assignment before being fired on Monday after videos of Sutherland’s final moments alive were publicly released.

Amy Gaffney, a Charleston-based attorney specializing in employment law, reviewed the termination letters signed by Graziano. Gaffney said that “the sheriff has very deliberately chosen the language she included in the letter.”

The sheriff did not specifically fire the deputies for their behavior on Jan. 5, Gaffney pointed out. “What she’s saying is that right now, based on the information available to me, your continued presence in the detention center impacts the efficient operations. So you must leave for now.”

The sheriff told both deputies she would consider rehiring them depending on the outcome of the investigations.

“Should compelling evidence come to light that would definitively exonerate you of any wrongdoing related to the incident, I would reconsider whether reinstatement would be appropriate in light of the information and then-current circumstances,” the letters state. “However, at this time, this action is necessary to restore order and ensure safety at the Detention Center.”

Gaffney said South Carolina sheriffs have unique positions created by our state constitution.

“She’s not a county employee. Deputies are accountable to the sheriff, and the sheriff is accountable to us the electors,” Gaffney said. “Whatever her decision [for terminating employees] is, it’s legitimate. Except she can’t terminate anyone for illegal reasons like age or race or gender.”

Graziano fired the deputies five months after the Sutherland incident. Since the video was released last week, there have been protests and demands for Fickett and Houle to be fired. Gaffney said there are likely extensive internal and external investigations ongoing, and personnel discussions that the public is not privy to.

“As electors who placed her in that role, we want her to make decisions like this based on thorough consideration of abundant information,” Gaffney said. “We don’t want her making knee jerk reactions. This is a very serious situation. We’re talking about a human’s life. We’re talking about the livelihood and employment of two deputies. So I don’t see anything nefarious about the amount of time or timing of this decision.”

The letters note that Fickett and Houle have five days to appeal Graziano’s decision to fire them.

Fickett and Houle each declined to comment.

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The May 17 letters from Sheriff Kristin Graziano to Detention Sergeant Lindsay Fickett and...
The May 17 letters from Sheriff Kristin Graziano to Detention Sergeant Lindsay Fickett and Detention Deputy Brian Houle do not specifically address the actions taken by the two deputies on Jan. 5 at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston.(Provided)
The May 17 letters from Sheriff Kristin Graziano to Detention Sergeant Lindsay Fickett and...
The May 17 letters from Sheriff Kristin Graziano to Detention Sergeant Lindsay Fickett and Detention Deputy Brian Houle do not specifically address the actions taken by the two deputies on Jan. 5 at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston.(Provided)

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