The family of Lashawn Thompson, a Fulton County, Ga., inmate who was reportedly found “eaten alive” by bedbugs and insects last year, on Monday announced the results of an independent autopsy that was paid for by the former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Dr. Roger A. Mitchell, the chair of the pathology department at Howard University, ruled Thompson’s death a homicide resulting from “severe neglect.” The first autopsy, performed by the Fulton County medical examiner, had concluded that Thompson’s death was undetermined.
“The undetermined autopsy will not be the final word,” Ben Crump, the family’s attorney, said during a news conference on Monday, adding that Fulton County will be held accountable for Thompson’s death in September 2022.
Thompson suffered from schizophrenia and was held in the psychiatric wing of Fulton County Jail, where he was untreated and was suffering from dehydration and malnutrition, according to the independent autopsy.
“Mr. Thompson was completely reliant on his caregivers to provide both day-to-day care as well as the acute life-saving care that was needed to save him from the untreated decompensated schizophrenia," Mitchell wrote in the autopsy report.
According to the independent report, Thompson had suffered from severe body insect infestation for more than 28 days. The jail was essentially “a torture chamber,” Crump said.
Crump said the additional autopsy proved there was criminal negligence in Thompson's death, which he called “the most deplorable death-in-custody case in the history of America.” Now the family is seeking accountability.
“I want to thank Colin Kaepernick for helping us find the answers, find the facts. It's something that we already knew in our heart, but he gave us the chance to prove it to the world,” Brad McCrae, Thompson’s brother, said at the news conference on Monday.
Kaepernick funds independent autopsies
The Thompson case isn’t the first where Kaepernick has stepped in to foot the bill for a second autopsy. In 2022 he started Know Your Rights Camp, an autopsy initiative that offers free second autopsies to family members whose loved ones died in encounters involving police.
In 2022, law enforcement killed approximately 100 people a month, totaling at least 1,197 people, in a particularly deadly year of police violence, according to Mapping Police Violence.
"We know that the prison industrial complex, which includes police and policing, strives to protect and serve its interests at all costs," Kaepernick told the Associated Press. "The Autopsy Initiative is one important step toward ensuring that family members have access to accurate and forensically verifiable information about the cause of death of their loved one in their time of need.”
For many such families, an independent autopsy serves to confirm, support or possibly contradict the initial findings.
For example, in 2020, the family of George Floyd hired two pathologists to perform an independent autopsy, which determined that Floyd died from asphyxia due to neck and back compression. The initial Hennepin County, Minn., medical examiner's report found no physical evidence suggesting that Floyd died from asphyxia, and stated that he died from cardiopulmonary arrest while he was being restrained.
While independent autopsies can be a financial burden, costing thousands of dollars, experts say families are entitled to a second opinion after the death of a loved one.
So far, the autopsy initiative has funded at least 42 autopsies across 15 states for police-related or in-custody death cases.
'A different set of eyes'
Lawrence Kobilinsky, a professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Yahoo News that families often seek out a second autopsy because they “may think that something was missed, or something was misinterpreted,” requiring a “different set of eyes.”
But Kobilinsky said two autopsies can result in different findings because “some people see things that other people don't.”
However, in deaths involving law enforcement, civil rights activists worry that there could be bias or impropriety in a county medical examiner’s autopsy.
“You have to look at the source of the autopsy,” Gerald Griggs, state president of the Georgia NAACP, told Yahoo News. “One is a dependent autopsy, which are dependent on the resources of the state. One is an independent autopsy, done by somebody that's not affiliated with the state. We know that Mr. Thompson died in the care and custody of Fulton County. So it's very difficult for the Fulton County medical examiner to be independent.”
But experts note that when second autopsies are performed, a body may not be in its original state. “You're not looking at a pristine body, you're looking at a body that's already been opened up and examined, and organs have been removed and analyzed,” Kobilinsky said.
Kobilinsky said autopsy is not a perfect science and depends on a medical examiner’s experience and judgment.
“A medical examiner will form their opinion not only from the autopsy, but from the circumstances surrounding the death, which they sometimes get from law enforcement or [eye]witnesses,” he said. But the difference between “an accident or a suicide or a homicide has serious consequences,” he added.
Is one autopsy enough?
Fulton County Sheriff Pat Labat, who has publicly acknowledged the wrongdoing at the Fulton County Jail, released a statement saying that he has not reviewed the independent autopsy report, but that "it was painfully clear there were a number of failures that led to Mr. Thompson's tragic death."
“I have already held the executive staff responsible for jail operations accountable by asking for and receiving the resignations of the chief jailer, assistant chief jailer of housing and assistant chief jailer, Criminal Investigative Division. Repercussions for anyone found to be negligent in Mr. Thompson’s care could come once the full investigation is turned over to the GBI [Georgia Bureau of Investigation] for review,” Labat said.
Griggs said both autopsies will be used, “because now you have two equally qualified experts. Jurors will be the ultimate determiner of what is fact.” Authorities have not announced any criminal charges in connection with Thompson’s death.
The autopsy completed by Mitchell took many weeks and provides full details on Thompson’s malnutrition, dehydration and psychosis.
“We have some real questions as to why the Fulton County medical examiner was not able to come up with a true cause of death,” Griggs said.