An inquest into the death of Terrill Thomas began last week and should conclude early this week in Milwaukee County. What is an inquest and what is its purpose in this specific case? This post examines the law regarding an inquest and why it was ordered.
What is an Inquest?
Chapter 979 of the Wisconsin Statutes is titled “Investigation of Deaths.” Under 979.04, “if a district attorney has notice or knowledge of the death of any person and there is reason to believe from the circumstances surrounding the death that homicide was involved, or that the death was a suicide, or that the death is unexplained or suspicious, the DA can order an inquest be conducted to determine how the person died.” If a coroner or medical examiner learns of a death that falls under one of the above scenarios, they can request the DA conduct an inquest
The inquest is conducted by either a circuit court judge or a court commissioner. Generally the inquest is conducted in front of a jury and the case proceeds much like a trial. First there is jury selection and then 6 jurors are selected. Subpoenas are issued to witnesses and the witnesses are ordered to testify. A witness does have the right to counsel, but the counsel is not permitted to cross- examine the witness, call other witnesses, or make any arguments before the judge or jury. As the inquest proceeds, the witnesses are asked questions and shown exhibits by the District Attorney.
At the end of the inquest, the judge instructs the jury on the issues and law. The jury’s purpose is to determine whether the deceased came to his death by criminal means. If so, the jury determines the specific crimes committed and the name of the person or persons who committed the crimes. The burden of proof is probable cause and the verdict(s) must be unanimous.
Importantly, the jury’s verdict is not binding on the DA’s office. Rather, the DA uses the jury’s verdict as a guideline in determining whether to actually issue criminal charges.
What if I’m a Witness?
If you are subpoenaed as a witness, you must comply with the subpoena just like any other subpoena. However, as mentioned above, you do have some rights. Because the nature of the inquest is to gather information surrounding a death, some testimony may be incriminating. Therefore, it might be advisable to exercise your 5th amendment right against self-incrimination. Section 979.07 states that a witness may refuse to testify. However, the witness still can be compelled to testify if the district attorney offers the witness immunity. If the witness still refuses to testify, the court may punish the witness for contempt of court.
Terrill Thomas Inquest
The inquest into the death of Milwaukee County Jail inmate Terrill Thomas began last Monday. Prosecutors called numerous expert witnesses over the first two days before focusing their attention on actual jail staff. The crime that is being considered is in Section 940.29 – abuse of residents of penal facilities. Someone can be found guilty of this crime, a Class I Felony, if the person in charge of or employed in a correctional institution abuses, neglects or ill-treats any person confined in or a resident of any such institution, or who knowingly permits another person to do so. The big question is whether the actions constitute abuse or neglect, or whether the actions were to ensure order and discipline in the facility. That is the question the jury will have to decide in the Thomas case.
If you have additional questions about inquests, don’t hesitate to contact one of our experienced criminal law attorneys.