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A coroner said Wednesday that a mentally ill Black man who died after an encounter with deputies in a South Carolina jail earlier this year likely died of a cardiac event.
Charleston County Coroner Bobbi Jo O'Neal told reporters that Jamal Sutherland likely died of a fatal dysrhythmia, or an abnormal heart rhythm, after sheriff's deputies attempted to take him out of his jail cell in January. O'Neal changed the manner of death for Sutherland from “undetermined” to “homicide” on his death certificate earlier this month.
“Jamal mattered, and we need to be complete and thorough and answer all the questions we have," O'Neal said of the months-long investigation.
Sutherland’s death gained national attention last month after county officials released video showing deputies attempting to take Sutherland to a bond court appearance the day after he was booked into jail.
The clips show 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.
On Wednesday, O'Neal said forensic pathologists found three “very significant” factors that played a role in Sutherland's death. The factors included Sutherland's “excited state,” a recent change in medications he was prescribed at a psychiatric treatment center and the “subdual process” by which deputies removed Sutherland from his cell that day, O'Neal said. The latter two factors led O'Neal to change the death certificate.
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.
Medications that Sutherland received at Palmetto Behavioral Health had a known risk of causing irregular heart rhythms, the coroner said.
What the autopsy didn’t find, O’Neal added, were fatal injuries. Just one wound by a Taser was found on Sutherland’s body.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson has brought on forensic pathologist Dr. Kim Collins to provide a second opinion on Sutherland’s autopsy results after an earlier investigation found Sutherland's manner of death to be “undetermined.” She is seeking expert opinion on the use of force against Sutherland after reviewing official reports on his death.
Wilson said Tuesday that the new official finding of Sutherland's death as a homicide did not mean a crime was committed, adding that she needs experts to look at whether there was 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 previously said that she expected to decide whether to file charges by the end of this month.
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