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 floor and lifeless.
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’ 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 U.S. Under
Under Wisconsin law, an inquest may be ordered by a prosecutor when a death is considered suspicious or possibly criminal. Witnesses are subpoenaed and testimony is presented to a jury (as in this case) or a judge under oath. The judge or jury determines:
Whether the deceased came to his or her death by criminal means and, if so, the specific crimes committed and the name of the person or persons, if known, having committed the crimes.
Whether the deceased came to his or her death by natural causes, accident, suicide or an act privileged by law.
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’ 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.
“We see what happened as a completely preventable death and a grave injustice of a mentally ill man,” Erik Heipt, attorney for Thomas’ 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’ family filed the lawsuit last month, the sheriff did not comment to the Associated Press about the lawsuit, but he did note Thomas’ criminal background, which included a drug charge.
“I have nearly 1000 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 one. State lawmakers and an activist organization called on Clarke to resign over the deaths.