Nearly a year after 38-year-old Terrill Thomas spent his last living days begging for water in solitary confinement at the Milwaukee County Jail before being found dead in his cell, no criminal charges have been filed in his death.
The medical examiner classified Thomas’ death as a homicide and ruled the cause of death “profound dehydration,” the Washington Post reports. According to the Post, inmates told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that jail staff had shut off water to Thomas’ cell as punishment for bad behavior.
Four inmates died at the Milwaukee County Jail between April and December 2016, and although the medical examiner made some information regarding the deaths public (much to the embarrassment of Sheriff David Clarke, who was for the most part publicly silent about the deaths), no charges have been filed in Thomas’ death.
That may change, however, since the Post reports that a special inquest by prosecutors this week could provide more info on the death and help determine whether anyone should be held accountable for the man’s death.
According to the Post, inquests are rare in the United States, but under Wisconsin law, one may be ordered by a prosecutor when a death is considered suspicious. Witnesses are subpoenaed, and testimony is presented under oath to a judge or a jury, which then determines whether a crime has been committed and by whom. That finding is only advisory; ultimately a county or district attorney will decide whether or not to press charges.
In this inquest, a prosecutor told the jury Monday that Thomas had endured seven days without any liquid, lost 35 pounds, and grown weak and quiet before he died in his cell.
Assistant District Attorney Kurt Benkley told jurors that they would be asked to answer three questions: “What was the cause of Mr. Thomas’ death? Was it the result of criminal activity? And if so, who committed the crime?”
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.
“This order to shut off Mr. Thomas’ water was highly irregular and contrary to standard operating procedure in the jail,” Benkley said Monday. He told jurors that they would hear from fellow inmates who claim Thomas called for water, and that there is evidence Thomas was “unable to tell people about his basic needs” because of his compromised mental health.
Thomas was in jail for just eight days after allegedly firing a gun at a group of men and hitting one in the chest. He was facing five charges and a possible sentence of over 60 years in prison.
More from WaPo:
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.
Thomas’ family filed a lawsuit in federal court last month claiming that he “was subjected to a form of torture” during his time in solitary confinement.
In response to the lawsuit, WaPo reports, Sheriff Clarke told the Associated Press:
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? The media never reports that in stories about him. If that is him, then at least I know who you are talking about.
Because apparently what’s most important is finding justification for why it was OK for prison officials to deprive a man of water and let him die of dehydration.
Read more at the Washington Post.