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Milwaukee Prosecutors Launch Investigation Into Inmate's Death


Let's turn now to Milwaukee where jailers are under investigation for the death of an inmate last year. The county's district attorney is holding a legal proceeding before a jury to see if criminal charges are warranted. It's the first probe of the jail in two decades, although it's not the only death under questionable circumstances. As Ann-Elise Henzl of member station WUWM reports, the probe could affect the fate of Milwaukee County's outspoken conservative sheriff, David Clarke.

ANN-ELISE HENZL, BYLINE: All this week, eight jurors have been hearing excruciating details about the last days of Terrill Thomas. Thomas, who the medical examiner says suffered from bipolar disorder, was arrested on a gun charge about a year ago. He was held in the Milwaukee County Jail where officials say he started causing problems. Lieutenant Kashka Meadors testified about what she saw when responding to reports that Thomas had flooded his cell.


KASHKA MEADORS: He had part of the ripped mattress, and he was pushing that down in the toilet as well, flooding it, making the water come out into - out from under his cell into the dayroom area.

HENZL: Meadors ordered Thomas's water shut off, she says just until his behavior improved. But no one ever turned it back on. Witnesses say Thomas appeared to be in mental health distress and might not have been capable of telling the guards he needed water. He died in his cell a week later of dehydration. Pete Koneazny is with Milwaukee's Legal Aid Society and has been attending the inquest all week.

PETE KONEAZNY: It is disturbing how many people would have had an opportunity to notice what was going on and for whatever reason weren't paying attention.

HENZL: His group is concerned not just about Thomas's death but also three others at the jail over a six-month period, including a newborn. Koneazny says it appears jail staff ignored the mother's calls for help and didn't check on her for hours.

KONEAZNY: It's certainly hard to understand how someone could go into labor and have a baby without anybody noticing.

HENZL: Although there are mounting concerns about the deaths at the jail and all four families have filed civil lawsuits, this week's inquest only involves the case of Terrill Thomas, who died of dehydration. Stan Stojkovic teaches criminal justice at UW-Milwaukee and says while the inquest is a rarely used tool, it could have far-reaching implications.

STAN STOJKOVIC: They're going through an investigative process to determine, was there any criminal wrongdoing? And but then again, there may be some other implications for civil wrongdoing and civil liability down the road.

HENZL: Stojkovic says jail staffers could face criminal charges, although the official who oversees the jail, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, is unlikely to be charged. Clarke, who campaigned for Donald Trump, has built a reputation as a tough-talking law man. On local conservative radio station WISN earlier this month, he appeared to blame the victims, saying a few of the inmates who died reportedly had a history of drug use.


DAVID CLARKE: I cannot control someone who comes in in bad medical health that is a heroin user or has all of these other ailments and they happen to die inside that facility downtown.

HENZL: Testimony in the inquest is expected to continue next week. Then the jurors will decide whether to recommend that the district attorney pursue criminal charges in the death of Terrill Thomas. For NPR News, I'm Ann-Elise Henzl in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLD SPECKS SONG, "HOLLAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.
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