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Solicitor won’t file charges for Charleston deputies in Sutherland’s death, but FBI also investigating

Published: Jul. 26, 2021 at 11:15 AM EDT|Updated: Jul. 26, 2021 at 7:49 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she will not file charges against two Charleston County detention deputies in the January death of Jamal Sutherland.

“I understand people will have a hard time with the decision not to prosecute,” Wilson said. “Legally, though, once you see the analysis once you see all of the facts that go into these decisions, you know that there was no real choice as a prosecutor.”

She said she can’t bring a case she knows she can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

“And I cannot prove criminal intent beyond a reasonable doubt in this case,” she said.

Detention Sgt. Lindsay Fickett and Detention Deputy Brian Houle, who were initially placed on administrative leave then allowed to return to administrative duty, were terminated in May after the release of video showing Sutherland being forcibly removed from his cell so that he could attend a bond hearing.

Jamal Sutherland, 31, died on Jan. 5 while in custody at the Charleston County jail.
Jamal Sutherland, 31, died on Jan. 5 while in custody at the Charleston County jail.

Wilson called Sutherland’s death a “travesty” and said it should not have happened. She said about 24 hours after he checked himself in to a mental health facility, he attempted to check himself out, saying that he was worse then than he was when he went in.

“While armchair lawyers and judges, and even armchair law enforcement have made it seem as though the videos in this case are the only evidence that we would need, I know better,” she said, citing her experience in prosecuting cases.

She said the videos are “damning, disturbing and upsetting.”

SPECIAL SECTION: Jamal Sutherland Death Investigation

Wilson said the first pathologist’s report and eyewitness testimony from a nurse who was present indicated in March that she did not have sufficient evidence for criminal charges, but she said she owed it to the Sutherland family to dig further.

“Proving what they did was not the problem and even though we had the evidence and more from the pathologist on proximate cause, that issue had been addressed,” Wilson said.

She said she thinks they could prove the deputies had a hand in Sutherland’s death.

“That doesn’t mean they committed a crime,” she said.

Use of force expert details findings in review of Sutherland’s death

Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano announced in May that Detention Sgt. Lindsay...
Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano announced in May that Detention Sgt. Lindsay Fickett, left, and Detention Deputy Brian Houle, right, were fired. They had been on administrative duty since shortly after the death of Jamal Sutherland on Jan. 5 at the jail.(Charleston County Sheriff's Office)

Wilson brought in Gary Raney, an expert on the use of force, to analyze the evidence in the case.

“The commander of the jail ordered a forcible cell extraction to Mr. Sutherland, even though it’s violated the policy of the sheriff’s office,” Raney said. “There was insufficient staffing in the jail to do a cell extraction.”

Raney said Houle was the only detention deputy certified to do a cell extraction. He said Houle sought help from Fickett, who had previously been certified but had moved to another assignment.

“Consider though, two people expected to go in and forcibly remove somebody who we can foresee is likely to be violent. This is unheard of in jails of the United States to send two people in to do a forcible cell extraction on one person. And that sets the stage for what happened,” Raney said.

Raney was critical of the Charleston County jail, saying there was “a failure of policy, training and supervision,” but that the deputies had done this many times.

“You can shoot bullets in the air 99 times and nothing would ever happen,” Raney said. “But the 100th time could kill somebody.”

He cited deputies entering Sutherland’s cell while wearing a shotgun as part of their tactical gear and as part of the problem for any law enforcement agency, which is a “human service organization.”

“When you create an elitist mentality that become gladiators rather than guardians, you create that culture where we resort to force. There’s that old saying that if all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail,” Raney said. “I have seen patterns where jails emphasize tactical teams too much. And out of that comes patterns of excessive force.”

Wilson said what happened was “wrong” and that “it shouldn’t have happened.”

“It was wrong, but within the sheriff’s office on Jan. 5, 2020, it wasn’t rogue,” she said. “It had happened many times before. And there was a pat on the back and a march onto the next one.”

She said Sutherland was not a threat to anyone.

“Jamal Sutherland wasn’t going to hurt anyone in that jail cell,” she said. “He was there by himself. He wasn’t a danger to other inmates. He wasn’t a danger to anyone else, but they decided, the administration decided that it was so important that he go to a hearing where we all know, he likely would have gotten a [public recognizance] bond and been released.”

Wilson said there was negligence throughout the case.

“The problem in proving the criminal intent, however, is that this is how they were trained, and they didn’t have a reason to expect this outcome because they had done it so many times before and didn’t have this outcome,” she said.

Wilson made the announcement at a news conference Monday, ending months of speculation whether the two officers would face criminal charges in the death of the 31-year-old man.

FBI, Department of Justice also investigating Sutherland’s death

The FBI has a related pending investigation into Jamal Sutherland’s death at the Charleston County jail, Special Agent Don Wood confirmed Monday.

He said the FBI would not be represented at Wilson’s news conference and the agency would not provide “any correspondence between the FBI and any other entity related to our investigation.”

Wilson confirmed at her news conference that she reached out to the Department of Justice in April asked them to review the case for any potential civil rights violations.

“I have been sharing information with the United States Attorney’s Office, with the FBI,” Wilson said. “They have shared information with us as well.”

They opened the investigation and she said it was her understanding that it is continuing.

Sutherland had been arrested the night before by North Charleston Police who responded to Palmetto Behavioral Health where a fight between patients broke out.

The Sutherland family has said Sutherland was not part of that fight, but became agitated after police arrived at the facility and wound up being accused of assaulting an employee of the facility.

Read the full report from the solicitor’s office here:

Sutherland was booked into the Al Cannon Detention Center on Jan. 4 and died approximately 12 hours later.

Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano fired Fickett and Houle in May, about a week after the release of video recorded inside the jail that showed Sutherland being removed from his jail cell. The video footage included Sutherland being tased numerous times.

The Charleston County Coroner’s Office said a forensic autopsy showed the cause of death as “excited state with adverse pharmacotherapeutic effect during subdual process.” The coroner initially said the manner of death is currently “undetermined” as the investigation into Sutherland’s death remained open and active.

Wilson initially said she would make a decision on whether to file criminal charges in Sutherland’s death by the end of June. But she then said that decision would have to be delayed because of additional information that still needed a more detailed review.

Activists groups and members of Sutherland’s family called for charges to be filed in his death for months.

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