Terrill Thomas, the 38 year-old black man who died of thirst in his Milwaukee County Jail cell this April, was a victim of homicide.
While the determination by the Milwaukee County medial examiner is unlikely to result in any prosecutions, it is sure to bring further attention to the moonlighting of Milwaukee’s divisive sheriff, David A. Clarke Jr., in right wing media.
Clark has become a darling of Fox News and Breitbart.com through his attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement. He also supports reality show star-turned-white nationalist presidential nominee Donald Trump and addressed the Republican National Convention in July.
Thomas was found unconscious in his cell nine days after he was arrested for shooting a man in the chest and firing shots at a casino. He was awaiting a court-ordered psychiatric examination, as family members say Thomas was suffering a nervous breakdown when he was arrested.
Celia Thomas, mother of the deceased, told the Journal-Sentinel that her son “shouldn’t have been there in the first place. He should have been in a mental complex.”
Such facilities are already stretched to the limit in Minnesota. Even though as many as a third of all their inmates belong in mental health services, jailhouse officials have very limited options when it comes to dealing with mentally ill detainees.
But Thomas’s horrifying death by thirst was still eminently preventable.
“They could have gave him some water,” Celia Thomas says. Speaking to Huffington Post, Thomas family attorney Erik J. Heipt was even more affirmative: “No one should ever die of dehydration. It just should never happen.”
“They may well have had reason to turn off the water. There absolutely could be reasons why you’d want to turn off someone’s water in their cell. But to then not give them drinking water? That’s crazy,” Heipt said. “To make a human being die of thirst, where they have no ability to get their own water for survival, that’s pretty inhumane. It doesn’t get much worse than that.”
Heipt said he has received calls from other former inmates of the Milwaukee County Jail who said the water to their cells had been cut off, too. In fact, another inmate, Antonio Cowser, died in 2011 after water to his cell was turned off.
Fellow inmate Marcus Berry says that guards told him the water in Thomas’s cell had been turned off because he had flooded a previous billet. Berry also reportedly witnessed Thomas begging for water and tried to get staff to intervene.
However, investigators never even spoke to Berry until after the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel published his account.
“I could tell he was getting weaker,” Berry said. “One day he just lay down, dehydrated and hungry.” When Berry asked if Thomas needed water, he said it sounded like Thomas tried to say “yeah” but couldn’t fully speak.
Before going to bed that night, Berry said he told a corrections officer: “If something happens to that man, it’s your fault.”
He woke up hours later when corrections officers discovered Thomas unresponsive. Corrections officers told police soon after he died that they had been checking on Thomas every 30 minutes and he had made some type of noise or movement every other time.
Sheriff Clarke’s office has refused to comment on the death of Terrill Thomas. But he has defended the arrest of Sandra Bland, an African American woman whose death in custody for the ‘crime’ of a lit cigarette resulted in renewed attention to disproportionate police behavior towards people of color. Her family recently secured a $1.9 million settlement with Waller County, Texas.
A member of the radical right wing Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, Clarke has said that Black Lives Matter protesters should be “crushed,” calling them “goons” that “need to be silenced.” When a fatal police shooting sparked riots in Milwaukee recently, Clarke blamed the violence on single mothers and “questionable lifestyle choices.”
Clarke’s notoriety in conservative politics has boosted his personal fortune. According to ethics disclosure documents reviewed by the Journal-Sentinel, during 2015 Clarke had more income from speaking fees and gifts than from his salary as a public official. Perhaps he should spend more time managing his jail and less time fluffing Sean Hannity.
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