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County reaches $10 million settlement in jailed Black man’s death

The New York Times
WashingtonWritten By: Neil Vigdor and Azi Paybarah © 2021 The New York Times CompanyUpdated: May 26, 2021, 03:51 PM IST

A protest in support of Black Lives Matter movement (file photo). Photograph:(AFP)

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In a unanimous vote, the Charleston County Council approved the settlement in the death of Jamal Sutherland, 31, who had been taken from a mental health facility to the county jail at the time

A county in South Carolina agreed Tuesday to pay $10 million to the family of a Black man who died in January after sheriff’s deputies used pepper spray and Tasers on him in a jail cell as he told them, “I can’t breathe,” officials said.

In a unanimous vote, the Charleston County Council approved the settlement in the death of Jamal Sutherland, 31, who had been taken from a mental health facility to the county jail at the time.

His death on Jan. 5 has drawn protests and comparisons to the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

The settlement came as many Americans paused Tuesday to remember Floyd one year after his death, which became a catalyst for a nationwide reckoning on police brutality and systemic racism.

It followed the firing May 17 of the two deputies involved in Sutherland’s death, an encounter that was shown in graphic video footage that was released this month by the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office. One of the deputies placed a knee on Sutherland’s back.

Before the settlement was approved, the county and the Sutherland family had been engaged in mediation talks in an effort to avoid formal litigation, the television station WCSC reported. The council’s finance committee earlier recommended that the full council approve a $10 million settlement, according to local news media outlets.

Councilman Teddie E. Pryor Sr. said during the meeting that he had promised the Sutherland family that he would look into what reforms to public safety could be enacted.

“This should never happen to anyone ever again,” Pryor said. “Ever.”

A lawyer for Sutherland’s family did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday night.

The payout adds to a list of eight-figure settlements in several high-profile killings of Black people involving law enforcement officers. In March, Floyd’s family reached a $27 million settlement with the City of Minneapolis. This month, officials in Columbus, Ohio, agreed to pay $10 million to the family of Andre Hill, a Black man who was fatally shot by a police officer in a garage in December.

C. Brantley Moody, a member of the Charleston County Council, said during the group’s meeting Tuesday that he had grappled with whether to support the settlement. He acknowledged that “globally, this race to the courthouse” troubled him.

“What was done was a terrible injustice,” Moody said. “But how do you settle it? I don’t know what the answer is.”

The local prosecutor is expected to decide in June whether the deputies, Sgt. Lindsay Fickett and Detention Deputy Brian Houle, will face criminal charges in Sutherland’s death. The prosecutor, Scarlett A. Wilson, the 9th Circuit solicitor, said this month that she was reviewing the results of an investigation into the deputies’ actions conducted by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.

Fickett and Houle had been placed on administrative leave before their firing was announced May 17 on Twitter by Kristin Graziano, the Charleston County sheriff.

The deputies had been trying to remove Sutherland from a cell at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center, the county jail, to take him to court for a bond hearing Jan. 5 when the deadly encounter took place.

In the video footage released by the sheriff, the deputies were seen using pepper spray in Sutherland’s cell two times before firing Tasers at him. Sutherland had been hit with the Taser six to eight times, Houle later said in the video.

The video showed Sutherland writhing on the ground before he eventually lost consciousness. Soon after, he was declared dead, with a pathologist ruling that the manner of his death was “undetermined.” The pathologist stated that Sutherland had died “as a result of excited state with pharmacotherapeutic effect during subdual process.”

Officials would not discuss the autopsy results further and said that the post-mortem examination report would not be released because it was not a public document.

Sutherland was taken to the jail from a mental health facility, Palmetto Lowcountry Behavioral Health, where he had been arrested Jan. 4 after a fight broke out. Workers at the mental health center told responding officers that Sutherland had assaulted a staff member. He and another patient were charged with third-degree assault and battery, according to The Post and Courier of Charleston.

On the day of his arrest, a video showed Sutherland in distress. He screamed “Let go of me” at officers and spoke of conspiracies, including references to the Illuminati, groups — real and fictitious — dating back centuries and said to have special knowledge.