South Carolina

Coroner: Jail Death of Black Man Changed to a Homicide

The two deputies involved in the case, Lindsay Fickett and Brian Houle, were fired by Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano

CHARLESTON, SC - MAY 17: Protestors raise their fists, calling for justice for Jamal Sutherland at Marion Square on May 17, 2021 in Charleston, South Carolina. Sutherland, a black man suffering from mental illness, died after Charleston County deputies shocked him with a stun gun when removing him from a jail cell. Activists want charges brought against the deputies.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

A coroner has changed the death certificate of a mentally ill Black man who died in a South Carolina jail earlier this year to say he died by homicide, attorneys for the man's relatives said Tuesday.

Although the certificate originally indicated Jamal Sutherland's manner of death was “undetermined,” Charleston County Coroner Bobbi O’Neal amended the document earlier this month, according to a statement from attorneys Mark Peper and Gary Christmas.

Sutherland’s death in January gained national attention after county officials released video months later showing deputies attempting to take Sutherland to a bond court appearance the day after he was booked into jail. The footage shows that after Sutherland refused to leave his cell, deputies deployed stun guns and used pepper spray on him. “I can't breathe,” Sutherland said while handcuffed as one officer knelt on his back for more than two minutes. An hour later, he was pronounced dead, officials reported.

“The family reached this same conclusion immediately upon seeing the video of his death,” the Tuesday statement reads. “Thus they are pleased with the amended finding and remain steadfast in their pursuit of justice for Jamal.”

But the “homicide” determination doesn't mean a crime was committed in Sutherland's death, said Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson in a statement. Wilson, who has not yet indicated if she is pursuing charges, cited the National Association of Medical Examiners in saying that the term “homicide” on a death certificate is considered a neutral term that doesn't imply criminal intent.

The two deputies involved in the case, Lindsay Fickett and Brian Houle, were fired by Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano. Protestors in Charleston have called on Wilson to charge the deputies with murder or recuse herself from the case, news outlets reported.

Wilson has brought on forensic pathologist Dr. Kim Collins to provide a second opinion on Sutherland's autopsy results, the prosecutor said Tuesday. She is also an seeking expert opinion on the use of force against Sutherland after reviewing official reports on his death.

“In order for the State to hold someone criminally responsible for another’s death, the State must not only prove the proximate cause of death but also that the accused had the requisite criminal intent while acting unlawfully,” Wilson's statement reads. “In order to determine this, it is imperative that a well-qualified expert analyze the relevant video, policies, procedures and training of those involved.”

Wilson has previously said that she expected to decide whether to file charges by the end of this month.

Sutherland, 31, was originally booked on charges of third-degree assault and battery, a misdemeanor. His parents had placed him at Palmetto Behavioral Health, a mental health and substance abuse center, for treatment of his schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Officials said they were called to investigate a fight at the center and arrested Sutherland as a result.

Peper, the family’s attorney, has previously said that Sutherland’s illness was so severe he should never have been held in a nonmedical portion of the jail.

The county has since agreed to pay Sutherland's family $10 million, one of the more expensive payouts to families of those killed by police across the country.

Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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