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$10M Sutherland payout is ‘largest civil rights settlement in SC’

Updated: May. 26, 2021 at 11:46 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Charleston County Council’s unanimous vote Wednesday night on a $10 million settlement in the death of Jamal Sutherland means the county will have to dip into its coffers to pay the majority of the cost.

Sutherland is the man who died while in custody on Jan. 5 at the Charleston County jail.

His death came approximately 10 hours after North Charleston Police took him to the jail from Palmetto Behavioral Health where he was being treated for a mental health condition. Police responded to the facility after receiving a 911 call about a fight that had broken out.

Sutherland wound up being charged with third-degree assault and battery but became unresponsive as detention deputies worked to forcibly remove him from his cell so that he could attend a bond hearing. Deputies used tasers and dragged him out of the cell.

No one has been criminally charged, despite demands from Sutherland’s family and activist groups.

Injury attorney Mark Bringardner says the $10 million settlement is the largest civil rights settlement in the state of South Carolina.

“And it’s a sizable settlement, but I will say that it’s not out of line with other cases like that,” he says.

Mark Peper, the attorney representing the Sutherland family, said his staff also determined this is the largest civil rights settlement after looking through similar payments dating back to 2015. At that time, the $6.5 million Walter Scott settlement was the largest such payout.

Of the $10 million, Charleston County will pay $8 million. The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and the North Charleston Police Department will each pay $1 million.

But Bringardner says it’s not “case closed.”

Peper confirmed they are still looking to settle with Palmetto Behavioral Health, the North Charleston facility where Sutherland was arrested for assaulting a staff member. The family is also looking to settle with Wellpath, the contract company that provides medical workers at the Charleston County jail.

“So this is a good first step in providing closure to the family, providing some sense of justice to them,” Bringardner says. “But money can only do so much. It’s the best we have under our civil justice system to exchange money for injury or loss of life. But really what we try to do as lawyers is to pursue policy changes so there’s a systemic reaction to help make people in Mr. Sutherland’s situation safer.”

U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace says she hopes new laws and federal grants can help prevent this from ever happening again.

“Different ways we can treat folks when police or 911 is called and one example is to have a mental health professional on call when police are called,” she said.

Mace says we desperately need more data about mental health issues in prisons and jails to prevent mistreatment as well as costly settlements.

“All of us in the Charleston community want to see justice for Jamal and this is one step forward toward doing that,” she said.

The settlement now needs to be filed with the court and approved by a judge.

The two deputies involved were fired and Peper says they are both part of this $10 million agreement, meaning they will not be sued individually in a civil case.

But as for criminal charges, Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she hopes to decide whether charges can be filed by the end of June depending on investigations that are still underway.

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