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Grand jury finds jail staff failures in RI native’s death, but no indictments

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WEST WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — A grand jury in Georgia decided against indicting anyone in the death of a Rhode Island native but did find jail staff “failed to recognize” the inmate’s physical and mental health issues.

Shali Tilson was 22 when he died in the Rockdale County Jail in March 2018—nine days after he was arrested for disorderly conduct.

His brother Radames, who lives in North Kingstown, said the family now hopes the U.S. Department of Justice will “do the right thing” and hold anyone responsible for the death legally accountable.

“It’s going to hurt every day,” Tilson said. “There’s nothing we can do about that but try to make things better for everyone else [who ends up in custody.]”

According to Rockdale County District Attorney Alisha Johnson, the grand jury found jail staff complacency and assumptions played a role in Tilson’s death.

Johnson said the grand jury also found a “lack of procedures, training, leadership, and adherence to policy” were factors in failing to recognize and “address the mental state and physical decline of Shali Tilson.”

But, she added that the grand jury “did not find evidence that any person, criminally or intentionally caused the death.”

An autopsy indicated complications from dehydration caused Tilson’s death, but according to Johnson, the grand jury did not “find evidence that any person or persons intentionally withheld water from him.”

“When you leave him in a room, no medical attention, no food, no water, what do you expect to happen?” Tilson asked. “That’s showing intent enough, that you’re purposely leaving someone alone who’s in need of medical attention.”

During his nine days in the jail, Shali Tilson was on suicide watch, requiring personnel to check on him every 15 minutes.

A series of surveillance videos released last week showed Tilson push the call button in cell several times, bang on the cell door, and try to climb the wall the day he died.

Mawuli Davis, the family’s attorney, said in their civil lawsuit, “the struggle for justice for Shali is far from over.”

The Tilsons are seeking a jury trial and an unspecified amount of damages in the lawsuit.

Attorney Jason Waymire, who represents the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Department, said his clients have filed motions to dismiss the case.

Tilson said his brother moved from Rhode Island to Georgia when he was around 9 years old but returned to Rhode Island in 2017.

He was attending the Community College of Rhode Island and doing an internship in conjunction with the Central Falls mayor’s office but then moved back to Georgia to help his father.

“To watch my brother take his last breaths hopelessly trying to fight to get someone’s attention so he could be brought to a hospital—it makes me mad,” Tilson said. “Who wouldn’t be mad about that?”

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.

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