MILWAUKEE — A jury recommended criminal charges against seven Milwaukee County jail staffers in the dehydration death of an inmate who went without water for seven days.
The jury's recommendation Monday came after a six-day inquest that included testimony from jail staff and evidence from county prosecutors. The jury found probable cause for "abuse of a resident of a penal facility" in the death of 38-year-old Terrill Thomas on April 24, 2016.
The jurors recommended charges against two jail supervisors, Nancy Evans and Kashka Meadors, and five officers: James Ramsey-Guy, JorDon Johnson, Thomas Laine, Dominique Smith and John Weber.
It's up to prosecutors whether to file charges. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said he had no timeline to decide, and that he could charge more people — or fewer.
The six-person jury returned its recommendation just a few hours after morning testimony that the sheriff's office continued using water deprivation as a form of punishment even after Thomas' death. Prosecutors presented jurors with jail logs documenting two cases in which disobeying inmates had water to their cells turned off — both within a month of Thomas dying. One of the cases happened a week after Thomas' death and in both subsequent instances it wasn't clear when it was turned back on.
"This isn't the first time this happened. This is a pattern," Assistant District Attorney Kurt Bentley said.
The jail is overseen by conservative firebrand Sheriff David Clarke, but the inquest did not target him. Clarke, who has been frequently mentioned as a possible Trump administration appointee, has declined to comment on Thomas' death but did issue a statement in March noting Thomas' criminal background.
Clarke said in a statement posted to the sheriff's office Facebook page that he respects the legal process but would not comment further. "There will be no speculation of what will happen until it happens."
Thomas' death was one of four at the jail last year but the only one where charges are being considered.
Gov. Scott Walker last week rejected an immigrant rights group's request to remove Clarke from office, saying he found reports of Thomas' death concerning but that the sheriff's fate is up to voters.
Chisholm said he thought jurors were swayed by evidence that showed jail policies weren't followed and that Thomas had been left in poor conditions.
"I think it's just the clear lack of oversight over this entire process that really troubled them more than anything else," he said.
Chisholm said he conducted an inquest because what happened was a "major system failure" and he wanted the public to have some input in his decision.
Thomas was arrested April 14, 2016, for allegedly shooting a man in front of his parents' house and later firing a gun inside a casino. His family, which is suing the county over his death, has said he was having a mental breakdown at the time he was arrested.
The evidence and testimony prosecutors presented showed several missteps from guards and their supervisors, including the failure to log that Thomas' water had been turned off. That action was taken because Thomas had stuffed a mattress in a toilet to flood the cell he was previously in.
Meadors is accused of giving the order to shut off water, and Ramsey-Guy of carrying it out. Prosecutors suggested Evans had not co-operated fully with law enforcement investigating Thomas' death. The other officers had the most contact with Thomas, Chisholm said.
Kimberly Perry, the mother of one of Thomas' three children, said it was at times difficult to be in court watching the proceedings.
"It was very hard and challenging because how could you do this to an individual? I mean, he wasn't perfect, but he still was an individual who had rights," said Perry, 39.
During closing arguments, Chisholm told jurors Thomas' family had one question they wanted to ask the jail staffers who interacted with Thomas.
"Had Mr. Thomas been your son, had he been your brother, had he been a close friend, would this have happened?" Chisholm said. "I think we all know the answer to that."
Ivan Moreno, The Associated Press