Just a few hours into Terrill Thomas’s eighth day in solitary confinement at the Milwaukee County Jail last year, correction officers found the 38-year-old man on the ground and not moving.
He was dead.
Thomas had spent his final days begging for water, inmates later told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, because jail staff had shut off the flow to the pipes in his cell as punishment for bad behavior.
The cause of death was ultimately ruled “profound dehydration” and the medical examiner classified it a homicide — meaning death at the hands of others — an announcement that drew a torrent of rage from Sheriff David Clarke, a tough-talking and loyal President Trump surrogate.
Still, nearly a year later, no criminal charges have been filed in Thomas’s death.
But an inquest this week by prosecutors could shed more light on the circumstances of the case, whether someone should be held responsible and, if so, who and for what.
The first major court revelation came Monday, when prosecutors told the jury that Thomas had endured seven days without any liquid, lost 35 pounds and grown weak and quiet before he died inside his cell last year, reported the Journal Sentinel.
By the end of the week, Assistant District Attorney Kurt Benkley told jurors they would be asked to answer three questions, according to Fox 6: “What was the cause of Mr. Thomas’ death? Was it the result of criminal activity? And if so, who committed the crime?”
Inquests are relatively rare in the United States.
Under Wisconsin law, an inquest may be ordered by a prosecutor when a death is considered suspicious. Witnesses are subpoenaed and testimony is presented under oath to a jury (as in this case) or to a judge. The judge or jury determines whether a crime has been committed and by whom, but the finding is advisory. A county or district attorney can decide whether to prosecute.
In this case, the “potential crime” that may have been committed is felony abuse of an inmate, prosecutors wrote in a motion filed in March, without indicating who specifically did the abusing.
During an opening statement, Benkley said three corrections officers were captured on surveillance video cutting off Thomas’s water supply, reported the Journal Sentinel. They never turned it back on and failed to document the action or alert supervisors.
Inmates in solitary are only served beverages with their meals on Sundays, officer DeCorie Smith testified Monday, according to Fox 6. The other six days of the week, inmates get their water from the sinks in their cells, to which Thomas had no access.
Thomas had been moved to solitary in the discipline unit after he used his bedding to flood his jail cell in the special needs unit, where he was initially kept for his bipolar disorder.
“This order to shut off Mr. Thomas’ water was highly irregular and contrary to standard operating procedure in the jail,” Benkley said Monday, according to the Journal Sentinel.
Benkley told the jurors they will hear from fellow inmates who claim Thomas called for water. He also said there is evidence that Thomas’s compromised mental health made it clear he was “unable to tell people about his basic needs.”
Thomas had been in the county jail just eight days for allegedly shooting a gun at a group of men standing outside. One man was hit in the chest and underwent surgery at a hospital. According to court documents, Thomas was aiming at a man he believed had stolen his Mercedes-Benz the day before.
Thomas later went to the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino in Milwaukee, where he fired the gun into the air several times, yelled for everyone to get on the ground and claimed there were snakes everywhere. He scooped poker chips into his pockets.
When police arrived, Thomas dropped the gun into a garbage can and lay on the ground, according to reports. He faced five charges and a maximum of more than 60 years in prison.
Thomas’s family said he was having a mental breakdown when he committed the crimes.
The man’s sons filed a lawsuit in federal court last month claiming their father “was subjected to a form of torture” during his time in solitary confinement and that officers ignored his pleas for help.
The lawsuit claimed that police took Thomas for a hospital examination after he was disruptive at the jail and showed “signs of acute psychological disorders,” reported the Associated Press. The hospital cleared him for transport.
Days before he died, a judge ordered a competency examination for Thomas.
“We see what happened as a completely preventable death and a grave injustice of a mentally ill man,” Erik Heipt, attorney for Thomas’s estate, told Fox 6 last month. “He was in a mental health crisis, he needed help. He didn’t need to be punished by throwing him into a solitary unit without water.”
Even at the end of the inquest, it could be difficult for prosecutors to prove negligence. To charge a person with abuse of a prisoner, officials have to show that jail staff neglected Thomas or were aware of the neglect and didn’t intervene, reported the Journal Sentinel.
When Thomas’s family filed the lawsuit last month, the sheriff did not comment to the Associated Press about the lawsuit, but he did note Thomas’s criminal background, which included a drug charge.
“I have nearly 1,000 inmates. I don’t know all their names but is this the guy who was in custody for shooting up the Potawatomi Casino causing one man to be hit by gunfire while in possession of a firearm by a career convicted felon?” Clarke told the Associated Press. “The media never reports that in stories about him. If that is him, then at least I know who you are talking about.”
Thomas was one of four people to die at the Milwaukee County Jail during a six-month period in 2016, according to Fox 46.
In December, the U.S. Department of Justice said it would consider investigating the deaths after a congresswoman requested it. State lawmakers and an activist organization called on Clarke to resign over the deaths.
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