Cook: Suttle's unending death

Cook: Suttle's unending death

May 5th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

It's there in this one-page letter from the Department of Justice. Right there.

Maxine Cousin can hold it in her hands. Place it up to her face. Rip it apart.

This one letter that names the person who killed her dad -- Wadie Suttles -- 30 years ago.

"The information in our file,'' the Department of Justice letter reads, "indicates that in all likelihood the person responsible for Mr. Suttles's death was ... ''

But the rest of the sentence is blacked out.

Redacted, in thick, official, black ink.

Unreadable.

For decades, Cousin has been trying to find out what's underneath the black redaction, trying to piece together the full story of how her dad -- a 66-year-old black veteran -- died while in custody at the Chattanooga jail in 1983.

She's filed complaints with the United Nations, written letters to the U.S. attorney general, filed lawsuits. Boxes of files line her living room. Many contain redactions, which are implemented for a variety of reasons by governmental bodies. One file contains a document that -- minus one sentence -- is entirely blacked out.

"I feel like I'm in prison. And have been for 30 years,'' she said. "A life sentence.''

•••

Not long after midnight on a Friday in November 1983, Chattanooga police found Suttles asleep in his car outside the Fifth Street bus station. The officer woke him. Told him to move on. Suttles -- verbally abusive, police reports say -- left his car and started walking down the street.

The officer followed. Words were exchanged. Suttles was arrested for disorderly conduct.

It would be his last night as a free man.

Nearly a week went by. Despite attempts by his family, Suttles refused to sign a bond and remained in jail. While there, Suttles would receive a head injury so severe it would lead to his death days later.

But how?

And who?

One account: An inmate struck Suttles so hard it later killed him.

One account: An officer struck Suttles with his slapjack so hard it later killed him.

One account: Suttles leaped from his top bunk, landing on the floor and hitting his head.

One account: After kneeling and praying -- "Lord have mercy on me" -- Suttles screamed and ran his head into the cell door.

In the early morning of Dec. 2, he was found unconscious in his jail cell. Taken to Erlanger, Suttles survived a few more days, until he was pronounced dead Dec. 6.

"Brain death,'' the medical report states.

Line up every paper Cousin has and it would be a never-ending road. Conflicting reports, contradictory statements, differing autopsy reports, all like a wormhole revolving around one main question: How did Suttles' brain stem become so traumatized?

•••

For years, the Suttles case symbolized the wounds between black and white Chattanooga. Cousin, who worked for years at TVA before earning a master's degree in education, became a leader in the activist Concerned Citizens for Justice and helped in the structuring of a new city government.

Yet the Suttles story is still open, still a wound. Race relations are, as well.

"Why would you come in and investigate a case and then black everything out? What are you trying to protect?" she said.

Were Cousin white or wealthy or well-connected, would justice be so long delayed? Would her life be so redacted and incomplete?

"I want to be recognized as a human being. I want my father recognized as a human being,'' Cousin said.

Jail cells can take many forms.

•••

Subsequent local and federal investigations concluded that her father's death was not at the hands of officers or any jail employees.

"We concluded that this matter should be closed,'' one DOJ letter reads.

Not for Cousin.

Two weeks ago, another brown envelope arrived in her mailbox. It was from the DOJ, postmarked April 15 and cost $1.12 to mail. It contained 228 pages of police reports, testimonies, press clippings and documents.

It contained a 1984 report that explains how her dad died. The letter mentions his severe skull fracture and how police and jail employees were not involved.

But the part of the letter that does identify the reason behind her dad's death?

The rest of that sentence is marked out.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.