The manner of death of Jamal Sutherland, who died earlier this year in a South Carolina jail while being forcibly removed from a cell, has been changed to homicide, the Charleston County coroner confirmed Wednesday.
Coroner Bobbi Jo O’Neal told reporters at a Wednesday news conference that she has amended Sutherland’s manner of death from “undetermined” to “homicide.”
Family attorneys Mark A. Peper and Gary Christmas said Tuesday that O’Neal had told them that after additional testing she thought Sutherland’s death was “best deemed to be homicide.”
An amended death certificate dated June 8 was issued, the attorneys told CNN.
“The family reached this same conclusion immediately upon seeing the video of his death, thus they are pleased with the amended finding and remain steadfast in their pursuit of justice for Jamal,” Peper and Christmas said.
O’Neal emphasized that her role is to conduct an independent and throughout evaluation to determine the cause and manner of death.
“It’s important to understand that the manner of death is a medical designation. It’s a medical opinion, which is completely different from a legal designation,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal said that when a manner of death is ruled as “undetermined,” it means “that we don’t have clear information at the time or that we need more information.” It is not uncommon for medical experts involved in death investigations to require additional testing, more review, and more interpretation, she said.
In Sutherland’s case, additional toxicology reports, a review of audio and video transcripts, medical records, and medical equipment were all included in the full forensic autopsy.
O’Neal said it was the opinion of her team of forensic experts that Sutherland died of a cardiac event, probably a fatal dysrhythmia, the medical term for an abnormal heart rhythm.
Three factors likely contributed to this ultimately fatal heart condition, she said. One of those was the subdual process as detention officers attempted to get Sutherland out of this cell.
“We know that there’s probably a traumatic stress response that happens during that process although that’s not measurable. That’s not something that we can measure or test for. We cannot exclude as being a factor in the death of Mr. Sutherland,” O’Neal said.
She cited guidelines from the National Association of Medical Examiners that say deaths involving a subdual process may be ruled a homicide even if there was no intention to kill.
The other two factors in Sutherland’s death were his excited state and the medicine he was taking, O’Neal said.
Members of her team believe a change in Sutherland’s medications and a possible traumatic stress response during the subdual process were “a significant portion of the puzzle here as to what happened,” she said.
Prosecutor has not announced decision on charges
Sutherland, who suffered from mental illness, died January 5 while in custody at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston. He was in custody because of an incident at a behavioral health center on January 4 in which he was accused of committing “a misdemeanor offense of simple assault on a nurse staff member,” according to Peper.
Footage released May 12 by the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office shows deputies pepper spraying and tasing Sutherland, 31, multiple times after he appeared to resist leaving his cell for a bail hearing.
“What is the meaning of this?” Sutherland can be heard saying on video as deputies enter his cell and one tells him not to resist. After struggling with both deputies, a medic was seen asking to check Sutherland’s vitals.
“He got tased about probably six to eight times, at least,” one deputy tells the medic.
On May 11, County Solicitor Scarlett Wilson released a statement saying pathologist J.C. Upshaw Downs had listed Sutherland’s manner of death as undetermined.
Wilson said Tuesday that when she first saw the video she thought Downs would rule Sutherland’s death a homicide and was surprised when he didn’t.
But, she said, neither Downs’ ruling nor the coroner’s as to the manner of death factors heavily into a potential criminal prosecution. Many cases go to trial even when the manner of death is listed as undetermined and some homicides are not crimes, she said.
Wilson previously sought a second opinion on the manner of Sutherland’s death. That pathologist is still looking into whether pharmacotherapeutic effect played a role in his death, she said Tuesday.
Wilson has said she will make a charging decision in the case “before the end of June.”
The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office said Sgt. Lindsay Fickett and Detention Deputy Brian Houle were fired May 17.