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Jail Inquest in Milwaukee

Inquest into the death of Terrill Thomas:

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.  Criminal defense lawyer Ben Van Severen explains:


What is an Inquest?  A defense lawyer explains:

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

A circuit court judge or court commissioner conduct the inquest.  It proceeds like a trial in front of a jury.  Jury selection occurs first.  Six jurors are selected.  Witnesses are subpoenaed and required to testify.   Those witnesses maintain a right to counsel.  Unfortunately, counsel cannot cross-examine the witness, call other witnesses, or make arguments to the judge or jury.  The district attorney asks witnesses questions as the inquest proceeds.

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?

Witnesses must comply if subpoenaed.  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.

The district attorney may work around this by offering the witness immunity.  Upon providing the witness immunity, he must provide testimony.  Upon failure 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.  Milwaukee county 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.


Contact Milwaukee’s top criminal defense attorneys

The attorneys at Meyer Van Severen, S.C. specialize in criminal defense.  Accordingly, contact us if you’re subject to an inquest.  We answer phone calls 24/7 at (414) 270-0202.

Attorney Ben Van Severen