On Monday, Karo Thompson stood on the steps of the Georgia State Capitol speaking about his nephew, who died while incarcerated at Fulton County Jail.

“Every person that was put in office, raised their right hand, they swore an oath to uphold their duties and responsibility,” he said, at the family’s press conference revealing the findings of an independent autopsy that revealed the cause of death for Lashawn Thompson.

Lashawn Thompson, 35, was arrested on a misdemeanor assault charge and held in the jail’s psychiatric unit from June until his death in September. 

After months of trying to get answers about what happened to Thompson, his family caught the attention of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who paid for an independent autopsy after the Fulton County Medical Examiner labeled his cause of death as “undetermined.”

The family has released the results of the independent autopsy, which labeled his death as a homicide. The autopsy was performed by Dr. Roger A. Mitchell Jr., who currently serves as chair of pathology at Howard University College of Medicine. Mitchell previously served as medical examiner for the District of Columbia.

“This is one of the most deplorable in-custody deaths in the history of America,” said Ben Crump, one of the family’s attorneys.

Mitchell’s autopsy report found the cause of death to be “complications due to severe neglect,” with untreated decompensated schizophrenia as a contributing cause. He also found that Thompson was suffering from dehydration, malnutrition, and severe body insect infestation at the time of his death. As a result of the neglect, Thompson suffered cardiac arrhythmia that caused his death.

“Had Mr. Thompson received adequate care during his incarceration at the Fulton County Jail than [sic] he would not have died at the time that he did,” Mitchell wrote.

Here’s what we learned from the autopsy report, as well as the next steps for Thompson’s family.

Untreated schizophrenia, dehydration, and malnutrition

A toxicology report performed at the autopsy found that Thompson tested negative for the medications he was prescribed to treat his schizophrenia.

“According to the timeline and medical records available, Mr. Thompson received his last dose of medications 32 days before his death,” the autopsy report states.

The report cites a study published by Cambridge University Press that states untreated schizophrenia can lead to psychological decompensation, which is when an individual loses the ability to perform healthy defense mechanisms (like shaking off the bed bugs and lice that were crawling on Thompson) in response to stress.

Mitchell found moderate to severe loose skin around Thompson’s abdomen, back, buttocks, and upper thighs; evidence of his dehydration and malnutrition.

Thompson lost 32 pounds, or 18% of his body weight, between his arrest on June 12 and the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s autopsy on Sept. 14.

Severe body insect infestation

Thompson’s entire body was infested with lice and covered in bed bug bites.

“Another marker of neglect is the severe infestation of lice or pediculosis,” Mitchell wrote.

According to the autopsy, Thompson’s lice infestation had not been treated with a medical bath in at least 28 days — the lifespan of a lice — prior to his death.

“Bedbugs [were] biting him, as [Mitchell] notes, in his eyes, in his nose, in his mouth, in his ears, all over his chest, all over his privates. They said it was innumerable how many bed bugs bites he had over his body,” said Crump, who referred to the cell where Thompson was held as a “torture chamber.”

What Thompson’s family is saying

Attorney Ben Crump addresses the media at the press conference announcing the results of the independent autopsy of Lashawn Thompson. (Madeline Thigpen/Capital B)

When he addressed reporters, Karo Thompson said the family wants to meet with Gov. Brian Kemp.

“We hope that we will talk to the governor, and he will give us some type of insight on what’s going on in his state to help us, to help other people,” said Brad McCrae, Lashawn Thompson’s younger brother.

Thompson’s family and their attorneys are calling on Fulton Sheriff Patrick Labat and county commissioners to make serious changes at the jail.

“It’s enough that the bed bugs and lice sat there and ate my brother to death, but the neglect hurts me the most,” McCrae said. “That in 2023 that we’ll see people leave people, let them torture, let them rot in the cell, that hurts me the most.”

The family was also joined by Gerald Griggs, president of the Georgia NAACP, who demanded legislation and policy change to prevent such deaths from ever happening again.

“When we talk about law and order, we always got to talk about justice. And justice requires that people that are innocent should be treated with the care and the compassion of every citizen,” he said.

Griggs added that his organization will work to replace every elected official who isn’t doing something about the conditions at the jail. 

“What Dr. Mitchell is articulating in the autopsy is what we, in the legal profession, would define as criminal negligence,” Crump added. “Somebody has to be held accountable for this.”

What the Fulton sheriff is saying

Since the news of Thompson’s death was made public last month, Labat has accepted the resignation of three top officials in his department.

“This is absolutely unconscionable, point-blank,” he said at a press conference with Thompson’s family in front of the jail on April 20. “If holding people accountable is a crime, I’ll be guilty every day.”

Labat said that after the investigation is concluded, he will hand it over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation or to state Attorney General Chris Carr.

Fight over the jail

When Labat was sworn into office in January 2021, he began a campaign for the county to purchase the Atlanta City Detention Center from the city to address overcrowding and deplorable conditions in the jail. Then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms did not support the sale and vowed to turn the city jail into a diversion center. 

When Mayor Andre Dickens took office, however, the city changed course and said that it was willing to lease the jail to Fulton County for five years.

After much opposition from activists, the city agreed to lease space in the detention center to Fulton County.

Late last week, Labat revoked the Atlanta Citizens Review Board’s access to inmates incarcerated by the county. The board is authorized by the city of Atlanta to investigate citizen complaints against Atlanta Police and corrections officers.

The review board released a letter calling Labat’s decision “troubling” and implored his office to allow it to resume interviewing inmates.

What’s next?

The family’s attorneys have said they plan to sue and have asked specifically for the Fulton County Board of Commissioners to take responsibility and action in response to Thompson’s death.

After the news of how Thompson died, U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, chair of the Senate Human Rights Subcommittee, announced that he would be launching an inquiry into the conditions under which incarcerated people in Georgia are being held.

Madeline Thigpen is Capital B Atlanta's criminal justice reporter.