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News
‘Naked, Alone, Afraid:’ Video shows man’s final hours in Rockdale County Jail
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‘Naked, Alone, Afraid:’ Video shows man’s final hours in Rockdale County Jail

‘Naked, Alone, Afraid:’ Video shows man’s final hours in Rockdale County Jail
Wednesday, Sept 18, 2019: Attorneys Mawuli Davis, Jeff Filipovits, and Harold Spence played segments of an eight-hour video that they say shows inhumane treatment of Shali Tilson in the Rockdale County Jail in 2018.

‘Naked, Alone, Afraid:’ Video shows man’s final hours in Rockdale County Jail

An outraged and heartbroken mother has seen video of her son banging on the door, calling for help, and then dying in the Rockdale County, GA jail after being locked up for nine days for misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

Atlanta attorney Mawuli Davis says an anonymous whistleblower sent them video of Shali Tilson’s final eight hours alive in a solitary confinement cell, one without a bed, toilet, or running water.  A lawsuit in the 22-year-old’s death contends he died in March 2018 of blood clots in his lungs caused by dehydration.  It names Rockdale County, Sheriff Eric Levett and several deputies and has been amended to include details from the videos. 

Tilson had been arrested as he was in the midst of a mental health crisis on March 3, Davis says, for allegedly trying to kick in a stranger’s door on Lakeview Drive. An incident report says Tilson was rambling, yelling profanities, and pacing back and forth.  He wriggled out of handcuffs the first time Rockdale County deputies tried to put him in the patrol car.  He was labeled “disruptive” and the lawsuit says Tilson was placed on “suicide watch” at the jail, which is meant to segregate mentally ill inmates into solitary confinement.

Tilson lost more than 20 pounds during his nine days in custody and despite being on suicide watch, no doctor ever saw him, the lawsuit alleges.

Tynesha Tilson tells WSB she felt as if she had to watch the video so she would know what her son went through in his final hours.  

“He went through torture and agony,” she says, explaining that she wanted the video released so other people could see what her son endured.

The video, while without audio, captures Tilson's desperate pleas for help and show him repeatedly pressing a call button that was not operational, trying to climb the door, and banging on the door before collapsing to the floor. Even though Sheriff's Department policy required him to be checked every 15 minutes, he lay motionless on the floor of his cell for more than two hours before jailers discovered him. 

“We want the world to know what happened to Shali Tilson,” says attorney Harold Spence, “A young man who died naked, alone, afraid.”

The cell remained brightly lit for 24 hours a day, says attorney Davis, who points out trash littering the floor of Tilson’s otherwise barren cell. 

“The grate in the middle of the floor was where he was supposed to defecate and urinate,” says Davis.  

On the day Tilson died, the lawsuit says, deputies pushed a food tray into Tilson’s cell at 4 p.m. and he pushed the broken buzzer 45 minutes later. He sat against the wall of his cell at 5 p.m. and lost consciousness minutes later. No one checked on Tilson from 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. His mother says that was the hardest part to see.

“When I watched Shali sit down on the floor and his back up against the door, and his head slump,” Mrs. Tilson says, her voice cracking.  “I watched his head slump and I watched him sit there in that same position for over three hours, I think it was? 

“I watched my son take his last breath on video.” 

Mrs. Tilson says the sheriff and the jailers should lose their jobs. 

“They need to be in prison. They need to pay for this,” she says.

The Rockdale County sheriff’s office declined to address the updated allegations specifically, when contacted, but a lawyer representing the county, the sheriff, and others named in the suit replied to an e-mail seeking comment.

“In an effort to preserve the integrity of the judicial process and avoid any potential to bias jurors who may be asked to decide the case in the future, it is the policy of our office to avoid commenting on the substance of pending litigation against our clients. My clients have all filed motions to dismiss the federal lawsuit, and those motions remain pending,” attorney Jason Waymire tells WSB in a written statement.

As lawyers played video clips for reporters on Wednesday, Mrs. Tilson and one of Shali’s sisters, Diamond, wept.  Shali’s mother excoriated the Rockdale County District Attorney Alisha Johnson, whom she contends has seen the video, too, for not taking action against the jailers.  

“They treated my son worse than an animal! And you want to tell me what she saw, nobody’s being held accountable?” she said angrily.

During an internal investigation, jail supervisor Sgt. Dan Lang admitted to falsifying the suicide watch logs to show the mandatory 15-minute checks. The next time anyone actually checked on Tilson was around 8:25 p.m., according to the lawsuit.  Davis points out that Lang is the same deputy who had been under investigation for taking guns from the agency’s evidence room and selling them to pawn shops for cash. He was transferred to the jail after that.

“You can’t trust him with property, but you’ll put the lives of human beings under his care,” Davis says. “What kind of decision is that?” 

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation examined the circumstances surrounding Tilson’s death and turned over its files to a district attorney who has convened a special grand jury to investigate Tilson’s death, Davis said. The lawsuit asks for a jury trial and seeks unspecified damages and attorney’s fees.

Davis contends someone should be held criminally responsible for Tilson’s death.  

“This was essentially a death chamber. That’s what this amounts to.  A death chamber,” says Davis.

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