No charges will be filed against two former Charleston County, South Carolina, detention officers who tased and pepper sprayed Jamal Sutherland before his in-custody death in January, Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said Monday.
“Ethically, I can’t bring a case forward that I know I can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt, and I cannot prove criminal intent beyond a reasonable doubt in this case,” she said at a news conference.
Sutherland, who suffered from mental illness, died January 5 while in custody at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston.
He was being detained because of an incident at a behavioral health center on January 4 in which he was accused of committing “a misdemeanor offense of simple assault on a nurse staff member,” Mark A. Peper, an attorney for Sutherland’s family, said last month.
The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office said Sgt. Lindsay Fickett and Detention Deputy Brian Houle were fired May 17.
Wilson said charges must reflect evidence, not emotion, but she added that policy changes must occur to avoid future deaths.
“We have an opportunity to change the way we see and treat mentally ill people,” she said. “I hate it, that this happened to Jamal Sutherland, he didn’t deserve this. He didn’t ask for this. It’s not his fault.
“But if the detention center doesn’t change its training, it will happen again. There’s no question about it.”
Sutherland’s mother, Amy Sutherland, told reporters at a family news conference: “The state let them get away with murder.” She called her son’s death a lynching.
She said her faith in God tells her the two former detention officers are “not getting away with anything.”
Peper called on state lawmakers to pass a new use of force law. His colleague Gary Christmas said South Carolina’s current statue places emphasis on state of mind, which can be difficult for prosecutors to prove.
“Give these solicitors the tools they need to hold people accountable for the senseless acts that occurred,” Peper said.
Amy Sutherland said justice was denied but she was angry at the state, not the prosecutor.
“For Solicitor Scarlett, I was mad at first,” Sutherland said, “But I think she did a good job, I think she’s been saying to my family that the laws have to change – and if the laws have to change I can’t be mad with her.”
Footage released May 12 by the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office shows officers pepper spraying and tasing Sutherland, 31, multiple times after he appeared to resist leaving his cell for a bail hearing.
“What is the meaning of this?” Sutherland can be heard saying on video as deputies enter his cell and one tells him not to resist. A medic is seen asking to check Sutherland’s vitals after struggled with the officers.
“He got tased about probably six to eight times, at least,” one officer tells the medic.
Sutherland’s death was initially listed on his death certificate as undetermined but the county coroner eventually changed the manner of death to homicide.
Coroner Bobbi Jo O’Neal said after the preliminary autopsy she looked at additional evidence – toxicology reports, audio and video transcripts, medical records, and medical equipment – in making her decision to amend the document.
O’Neal said it was the opinion of her team of forensic experts that Sutherland died of a cardiac event, probably a fatal dysrhythmia, the medical term for an abnormal heart rhythm.
Three factors likely contributed to this ultimately fatal heart condition, she said. One of those was the subdual process as detention officers attempted to get Sutherland out of this cell.
In May, the Charleston County Council approved a settlement of $10 million with Sutherland’s family.
Fintech Zoom’s Amir Vera and Gregory Lemos contributed to this report.