South Carolina ninth circuit solicitor Scarlett Wilson announced on Monday that her office was declining to press charges against former Charleston county sheriff’s deputies Lindsey Fickett and Brian Houle in connection with the death of Jamal Sutherland, a 31-year-old Lowcountry black man who perished in police custody prior to a scheduled bond hearing seven months ago.
Sutherland – who suffered from chronic paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder – died in the custody of the Charleston county sheriff’s office on January 5, 2021. His death took place as Fickett, Houle and other officers were attempting to remove him from his cell at the sheriff Al Cannon detention center.
In May of this year, Fickett and Houle were fired by Charleston county sheriff Kristin Graziano in connection with this troubling incident – which was captured in graphic, dramatic fashion on officers’ body-worn cameras and jail surveillance videos.
In fact, readers will recall that the city of Charleston stood on the precipice of another round of racial violence back in May when Graziano released the footage from those body-worn cameras.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed then …
Will they now?
We shall see … but Wilson made it clear her decision not to prosecute these two deputies was based on the law, not “public pressure.”
“My decision whether or not to pursue criminal charges is based on my almost thirty years of experience as a prosecutor,” Wilson wrote in a lengthy report (.pdf) detailing her rationale. “I approached this case and applied the same standard based on the facts and the law as I would when considering criminal charges in any matter.”
According to Wilson, “I know that the evidence would not support convictions of Lindsey Fickett or Brian Houle.”
In fact, Wilson said she could have declined to prosecute these two officers based “solely on the original pathologist’s autopsy report,” which listed Sutherland cause of death as “undetermined.”
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According to a forensic pathologist hired by Charleston county coroner Bobbi Jo O’Neal, Sutherland likely died as a result of an “excited state with pharmacotherapeutic effects” while he was being subdued by Fickett and Houle – who used their tasers on him multiple times as he repeatedly refused to comply with their instructions to come out of his jail cell.
According to Graziano, Sutherland was being transported from his cell “in order to ensure that he received a timely bond hearing, as required by law.”
After Sutherland refused to comply with officers’ repeated requests to come with them peacefully to the hearing, pepper spray was deployed in his cell on two separate occasions. When this failed to elicit his cooperation, Fickett fired her taser at Sutherland – shocking him and forcing him to the floor.
“Turn on your stomach!” Sutherland was ordered by deputies.
As officers continued trying to coax Sutherland from the cell, he continued disregarding their commands, according to the video footage of his attempted cell extraction.
Eventually, at around 9:35 a.m. EDT, officers entered the cell and began the process of forcibly removing Sutherland. During the ensuing struggle – which lasted approximately four minutes – Sutherland was tased anywhere between six and eight times.
“Stop resisting,” officers are heard saying on the video.
“I’m not resisting, officer,” Sutherland replied at one point.
As the struggle continued, footage showed Fickett straddling Sutherland’s lower body while Houle pressed his knee into Sutherland’s back in an attempt to subdue him. Houle’s knee was pressed into Sutherland’s back for approximately two minutes on the video.
About six minutes into his struggle with deputies, at 9:41 a.m. EDT, Sutherland went visibly limp – and started breathing and twitching erratically.
His last intelligible words?
“I can’t breathe.”
“Is he having a seizure?” one of the deputies asked.
At around 9:49 a.m. EDT, medical staff began administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation as Sutherland stopped breathing. A nurse checked for a pulse, but found none. Medical staff spent the next thirty-six minutes attempting to revive him, without success.
(Click to view)
(Via: WCIV TV-4)
Sutherland was incarcerated on January 4, 2021 on an assault charge after North Charleston police arrested him following an incident at Palmetto Lowcountry Behavioral Health – where his family had checked him in previously to receive treatment for his mental health issues. Prior to his arrest, the behavioral health center “administered multiple medications to Sutherland,” according to a report (.pdf) prepared by the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED).
A toxicology report revealed the presence of “valporic acid, olanzapine, chlorpromazine, and diphenhydramine” in Sutherland’s system at the time of his death, according to the SLED report.
Raney’s critique of Charleston county’s methods was scathing. Specifically, he accused detention center officials of adopting “dangerous and unproven tactics for cell extractions” and of failing to “adequately train staff in mental health awareness and practices.”
Raney further noted that the order to transport Sutherland to a bond hearing was “without cause” and issued in violation of the facility’s policies.
As for the specific methods of extraction used on Sutherland, Raney found that the detention center “failed to adequately train staff on limiting the number of TASER deployments by a single individual” and of “precautions against simultaneous deployments.”
Furthermore, his report concluded that the detention center “failed to adequately train staff on the precautions against compressional and positional asphyxia.”
“The events preceding Sutherland’s death are disturbing to say the least,” Raney wrote in his report. “Most of all, his death was preventable because the cell extraction never needed to happen. After that, the seriously flawed policies, training, supervision, custom and practices of the (detention center) combined to create a situation that would have been foreseeable had (sheriff Graziano’s) leadership been paying attention. This situation was a domino effect of mistakes. One led to another that led to another.”
Still, according to his report the deputies were not to blame because they did not evidence a “reckless disregard for the safety” of Sutherland.
“They were not reckless because they were either doing what they were trained to do or, in the absence of training, they were doing what had become the custom and practice in the (detention center),” Raney concluded.
(Click to view)
(Via: S.C. Ninth Circuit Solicitor’s Office)
Wilson (above) leaned heavily on the Raney report in reaching her decision not to criminally charge the two former officers – especially the report’s conclusion that neither Fickett nor Houle acted with “reckless disregard.”
“Many people may still adamantly (and understandably) believe that the deputies’ actions during the cell extraction was ‘excessive force’ but that is not the standard,” Wilson wrote (emphasis original). “The standard is whether the state can prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that each deputy acted either with malice aforethought or in the heat of passion or with conscious disregard for Sutherland’s risk of death.”
“I know that some of my friends and constituents will feel disappointment and outrage at my decision,” Wilson concluded. “People in this state and in this country may be angry, but I am sworn to make prosecutive decisions based on the facts and law, not on emotion or political pressure. Justice is not borne of a prosecution based on public outrage or a prosecution designed to calm critics.”
Wilson commended sheriff Graziano for “changes she already has implemented” to address some of the detention center issues – and for “demanding more comprehensive changes” in the hopes of preventing something like this from happening again.
She also made it abundantly clear that she did not arrive at her decision lightly …
“I know that I cannot imagine what it must be like to watch your own child die, much less at the hands of another,” Wilson wrote. “I know that I cannot imagine what it feels like to watch people who look just like me killed due to unnecessary and excessive police violence. As a citizen of this great state having watched the gut wrenching video of Jamal Sutherland dying, this was a difficult decision. As an experienced trial attorney, however, I know I had no real choice.”
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Solicitor Scarlett Wilson's decision not to prosecute these two former law enforcement officers was ...
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children. And yes, he has LOTS of hats (including that Fayetteville Woodpeckers’ lid pictured above).
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