Tynesha Tilson (right), the mother of Shali Tilson, speaks out against her son’s death during an Aug. 24 protest on the 17th St. bridge near Atlantic Station in Atlanta. Shali Tilson, 22, died in March while being held at the Rockdale County Jail. WILLOUGHBY MARIANO/wmariano@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Family of man who died in Rockdale jail files federal lawsuit

A little more than one year after Shali Tilson was found dead in a Rockdale County jail cell, his parents have filed a federal lawsuit demanding a jury trial.

Tilson, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was arrested on March 3, 2018 for disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor. He would lose 21 pounds in the nine days he was incarcerated, according to the suit, and would have survived if not for the negligence of the deputies.

He died of blood clots in his lungs, the result of dehydration, an autopsy found. The medical examiner said he also had two injuries in his skull, with bleeding on the brain, contusions on his ankle and foot and red marks on his abdomen.

“That’s torture,” said attorney Mawuli Davis, co-counsel for the family. “It shouldn’t happen in America. It happened in Rockdale County.”

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The suit seeks unspecified damages. Named as defendants: Rockdale County, Sheriff Eric Levett and three deputies supervising Tilson the day he died.

A spokeswoman for the sheriff did not respond to a request for comment. 

“Multiple lawyers of failure” were to blame for Tilson’s death, said co-counsel Jeff Filipovits.  

The 22-year-old had been placed on suicide watch on the final day of his life, and guards were supposed to check on him every 15 minutes. But according to an internal investigation obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News, Tilson had been dead for more than three hours before guards found his lifeless body, naked and surrounded by trash. His body had already grown stiff, the report stated.

Shali Tilson, 22, died in Rockdale County Jail in March. He worked as a tour guide at the Rhode Island State House before moving to Georgia in September 2017 care for his ailing father. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

That same investigation revealed a jail supervisor doctored logs indicating the checks had taken place. Investigators recommended that deputy be fired and four others suspended without pay, according to written reprimands from the sheriff's office, which runs the jail.

"They all basically got slaps on the wrist,” Shali’s mother, Tynesha Tilson, said at the time. 

The federal suit seeks to change that. 

“Jails are not psychiatric hospitals,” the suit states. “And people suffering from psychosis should not be held in solitary confinement.”

From the outset, each person who interacted with Tilson could see he was not well, the suit alleges.  

Witnesses told police Tilson was trying to kick in the door of a stranger's apartment, the arrest report states. Tilson and his family had moved out of the building about four months before.

He claimed to know a woman who lived there but she denied knowing him. Tilson shouted nonsensical obscenities, bursting into song with no provocation. As he was being driven to jail, he asked the officer to drop him off at his sister's place. 

The officer wrote that he thought Tilson was on drugs.

“Mr. Tilson’s behavior was erratic, and it was clear that he was experiencing delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia,” the suit states. “In spite of  clear and obvious signs that Mr. Tilson was in the midst of a medical crisis, the jailers did not seek medical attention for him. Instead, they placed him, unmedicated, in solitary confinement.”

He spent the next eight days there, in a cell with no running water, a metal bed and a hole in the floor for when he had to urinate and defecate. Deputies reported they used force on Tilson six times during his nine-day stay at the jail, although the sheriff's office has not released details of those incidents.

“Mr. Tilson’s treatment does not reflect well upon our society, and it gets much worse,” the suit alleges. “Six days after being placed in solitary confinement, with no outside contact,  no psychiatric assessment, and no medication, Mr. Tilson died of a pulmonary embolism caused by dehydration. For a person to be dehydrated to Mr. Tilson’s state, they would have to be without water for at least two days.”

Surveillance videos that would have shown what happened to Tilson over the last three days of his life have gone missing.

The attorneys for Tilson’s family have requested a federal investigation. Davis said the FBI told him they are reviewing that request. 

Meanwhile, an investigation launched by Rockdale’s district attorney continues. 

The jail would come under more scrutiny last summer. Less than three months after Tilson’s death, Jamie Henry, who had been arrested for violating probation, was found dead in her cell. Davis, who also represents Henry’s parents, said the jail failed to treat the 40-year-old mother of one for symptoms of withdrawal. She died from complications related to cocaine and morphine, according to Davis.

No suit has yet to be filed on Henry’s behalf. 

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