Video shows deputies pepper-spray, tase mentally ill Black man in jail cell before his death

ByMadeline Holcombe, Dakin Andone and Chris Boyette, CNN, CNNWire
Sunday, May 16, 2021
Video shows deputies pepper-spray Black man in jail cell before death
New video shows a mentally ill Black man being pepper-sprayed and Tased before his death in a South Carolina prison.

NORTH CARLESTON, S.C. -- Newly released footage showing how a Black man died as deputies forcibly removed him from a South Carolina jail cell is the latest case to raise questions about law enforcement's use of force during encounters with the mentally ill.

Jamal Sutherland died at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston on January 5, 2021, the Charleston County Sheriff's Office said. Footage shows deputies pepper spraying and tasing Sutherland, 31, multiple times after he appeared to resist leaving his cell for a bail hearing.

Sutherland was pronounced dead after attempts by medical staff at the facility to save his life, according to a news release issued by the sheriff's office at the time.

The footage -- from jail surveillance cameras and body cameras -- was released Thursday night at the request of Sutherland's family, Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano said in a statement posted on Twitter late Thursday night.

"Mental illness does not give anybody the right to put their hands on my child," Sutherland's mother, Amy Sutherland, said in a news conference Friday, describing him as "an example of what I wanted him to be."

"I want y'all to know Jamal was a great man. He had faults like everybody else, but he was a great man," she said. "I'm content that God has Jamal."

Family attorney Mark A. Peper said the family would endeavor to answer Sutherland's last question: "What is the meaning of this?"

"People with mental health issues are entitled to the same exact civil rights as you and me and every other healthy, wealthy person in this world," Peper said.

Sutherland's death comes at a time when law enforcement are under increased scrutiny for their use of force, particularly against Black people and other people of color, in addition to their encounters with people in the midst of mental health episodes, like Daniel Prude in Rochester, New York, and Miles Hall in Walnut Creek, California.

The two deputies involved in Sutherland's death were initially suspended for 30 days and are now on desk duty, said Graziano, who was elected in November and began her duties as sheriff on the day of the incident.

Charleston County Solicitor Scarlett Wilson has said her office is reviewing the case and she will decide about whether anyone will be criminally charged "before the end of June."

In a statement released with the videos, Graziano called the incident "a horrible tragedy."

"Our officers removed Mr. Sutherland from his cell that morning in order to ensure that he received a timely bond hearing, as required by law," Graziano said. "Their efforts were complicated by the increasing effects that Mr. Sutherland was suffering as a result of mental illness."

"Since this tragedy occurred, we have assessed our resources and are evaluating options for global improvement, including a focus on mental health awareness," she added.

Graziano told reporters at a Friday afternoon news conference that the policy at the time was to take detainees to their bail hearings, but that has since been changed.

Deputies can bring computer tablets connected to a wireless network to have the person who doesn't want to go to court attend via video, she said.

She also offered the family her "sincere condolences and apologies" for what happened.

"My heart goes out to them," she said.

While there are frequent instances of physical confrontations with detainees at the jail, she said she thinks about Sutherland's death and what she saw on video.

"I'm still horrified," she said. "It bothered me."

Sutherland tased between 6 and 8 times, deputy says

Peper said Sutherland had asked his family for help dealing with his mental illness on December 31, 2020. The family had taken him to a local mental health center where they hoped he would be safe.

According to North Charleston Mayor Keith Sumney, officers responded to Palmetto Lowcountry Behavioral Health Center on January 4 after calls of a "large scale fight" that had "erupted between patients and staff." In body camera footage released by North Charleston, officers were told Sutherland had punched a staff member and threw a fax machine.

According to Peper, an altercation occurred between two patients other than Sutherland, and that the center had called 911 in response. While police were responding, Peper said, "Jamal became agitated" and intervened in an effort to help.

"Given the confusion, he is alleged to have committed a misdemeanor offense of simple assault on a nurse staff member" at the center, Peper said.

In a statement, the health center's CEO Timothy A. Miller said the staff had "followed facility protocols" in their attempt to bring the situation under control and that police were called to further "help protect the safety of our patients and staff."

On the morning he died, Sutherland was scheduled to attend a bail hearing for a misdemeanor assault charge, according to a statement from Wilson, the county solicitor. Deputies at the detention center were responsible for moving Sutherland from his jail cell, according to the statement.

At the beginning of the footage from one of the body cameras, a deputy is heard saying Sutherland has refused to leave his cell and that he took "an aggressive stance." The deputy also says a captain has been notified and that the judge required Sutherland appear before the judge. Deputies were going to extract Sutherland from the cell while medical personnel were present, he says on the video.

The video shows deputies asking Sutherland to put his hands through the cell door so he could be handcuffed and taken to court. Sutherland is seen in his cell and heard yelling, "I'm warning you, I'm warning you." Deputies note Sutherland has a spoon in his hand.

About 15 minutes pass before a deputy deploys pepper spray into Sutherland's cell. Sutherland is heard coughing and wraps a blanket around his head. Deputies deploy another round of pepper spray a few minutes later, as Sutherland stands in the corner of the cell, covering his face with the blanket.

Deputies soon unlock the cell door and tase Sutherland, who is heard yelling out in pain. While on the ground, Sutherland is ordered to "slide to the door" and "get on your stomach." Video shows him sitting down, inching toward the door.

"What is the meaning of this?" he asks.

The deputies enter the cell to cuff Sutherland and one tells him not to resist. "I'm not resisting, officer," says Sutherland. Deputies try to handcuff Sutherland with his arms behind his back, and a deputy says "loosen up" before using his left hand to force Sutherland to the ground.

The sound of a Taser is heard again as Sutherland cries out. He's seen flat on the ground, his legs flailing as deputies try to gain control, yelling at him, "put your hands behind your back, Sutherland." A male deputy has a knee on Sutherland's back between his shoulder blades while a female deputy sits on his lower back, a knee on each side of Sutherland.

Sutherland is eventually handcuffed and slid out of his cell into a common area, where deputies remove Taser barbs from his front and back and lift a motionless Sutherland into a nearby wheelchair. A medic enters the frame, and a deputy asks, "Will you check him?"

The medic checks Sutherland's pulse and says he's breathing before asking deputies to put him back on the floor. More medics soon arrive to help, and one says they feel a pulse.

Deputies explain what happened. "He got tased about probably six to eight times, at least," one says.

EMS is called and paramedics arrive about 12 minutes later, eventually hooking Sutherland up to an automatic chest compression machine. After about 35 minutes of trying to revive Sutherland, the paramedics stop the machine. A few minutes later, a blanket is placed over him.

Jail has one mental health professional for inmates

Sutherland's father, James Sutherland, said in Friday's news conference that the footage was disturbing, adding it shows changes need to be made in law enforcement.

"He was already afraid and confused about the situation, and there was nobody in there to talk to him with any compassion, to try to reason with him and to let him know what was going on," he said.

"If they had brought in somebody that maybe was neutral," James Sutherland said, "that was not an officer, maybe a mental health person, could have been a nurse, somebody that was less threatening, they probably could have deescalated that situation. But that didn't happen."

The sheriff said at the news conference that her office has a contract with a health provider and has one mental health professional for the jail, but she didn't know whether the person was on duty when Sutherland died.

Graziano called for more help.

"It's not enough. We have 750 people in there, we have one mental health professional, and it's just not enough," she said.

The sheriff said the agency was developing policies and procedures for mental health issues but cannot effect change alone.

"We're working on that, but we need help, we need professionals' input, we don't have all the answers. We lean heavily on our legislators, our county counselor, or community partners to make these things possible," Graziano said.

Sutherland was 'not a threat,' congresswoman says

In a statement Friday, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said Sutherland's death was "a tragedy" and that video of the incident revealed issues that "need to be addressed in training, procedures, and policies around law enforcement's encounters with those experiencing mental illness."

"Jamal's mother, Amy, has bravely challenged us all to learn from her son's tragic death," McMaster said. "We will do so.

US Rep. Nancy Mace, a Republican who represents South Carolina's 1st District, said her "heart is broken for Jamal Sutherland's family."

"The video released last night by the Charleston County Sheriff showing the final moments of Jamal's life is horrific. Jamal was in custody. He was alone in a jail cell. He was not a threat to anyone in that moment," Mace said in a series of Twitter posts.

"No one deserves the death penalty for missing a bond hearing or for being a mental health patient."