A man died in jail. Now his mother calls for an investigation into a judge’s decision to keep him there despite charges being dropped.

By Brittany Hailer

The mother of a man who died at the Allegheny County Jail in March has filed a request for an investigation with the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board into Common Pleas Judge Anthony Mariani. 

Juana Saunders, 48, cited racism and impartiality in Mariani’s decision to refuse to release her son, Gerald Thomas, 26, from jail on Feb. 17 at a probation violation hearing despite the fact that evidence that led to his probation violation case was successfully suppressed and his charges were dropped. 

Marini addressed Thomas in court as to why he was not releasing him: “I don’t want to see you dead in the street on Friday or any other day of the week, but you won’t quit. I have to put you in the cage, lasso you, corral you, stuff you because you won’t quit,” according to court transcripts. 

Thomas was dead less than a month later anyway. He collapsed after exiting his cell on March 6 and died at 2 p.m. that day at UPMC Mercy Hospital. Thomas died of a bilateral pulmonary embolism, according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office.

Saunders was present for the Feb. 17 probation violation hearing and couldn’t believe what she saw and heard. 

In the hearing, Mariani said of the car Thomas was driving when he was arrested, “I’m surprised he wasn’t driving something with 22s on it.” Saunders called this “racially charged language” in the request. The judge was referring to 22 inch rims on vehicles, which are stereotypically associated with drug dealers.

“Gerald was not driving something with 22s on it’” Saunders wrote in her request, “it’s highly inappropriate and racist.” 

“Judge Mariani was also loudly screaming at Gerald throughout the hearing,” Saunders wrote in the investigation request. 

Gerald Thomas, photo provided by Juana Saunders.

Saunders wrote in her request that Mariani’s statements about needing to “cage” and “lasso” Thomas, accusing Thomas of embracing a “guns and drugs street life,” stating he was surprised he wasn’t “driving something with 22s on it,” are “racist dog whistles.”

Saunders said in her filing Mariani’s word choice showed racial bias in violation of Rule 2.3 of the PA Code of Judicial Conduct, which stipulates that “A judge shall perform the duties of judicial office, including administrative duties, without bias or prejudice.” 

Mariani’s office was not immediately available for comment. 

Thomas was pulled over by undercover police after failing to stop at a stop sign in the Hill District on March 30, 2021, according to court transcripts. The police searched his car without a warrant, according to court documents. Thomas was charged with illegal gun possession, receiving stolen property and possession of marijuana.

The charges were later withdrawn by the district attorney’s office after the search of his car was deemed illegal. Mariani decided at the hearing that Thomas would remain in jail and allowed the parties to file briefs on the evidence issue.  

“I hold Mariani very responsible for my son’s death. My son’s blood is on his hands. He needs to be taken off the bench if this is how he routinely behaves,” Saunders wrote in the investigation request. 

Saunders said in an interview that Mariani has knowledge of the jail’s staffing crisis due to news reports, but forced her son to remain in the jail in those conditions, instead of coming home to his family. She said it is more dangerous in the jail than it is outside of it. 

“Mariani is placing people in that institution while knowing that there is no medical care, deplorable food and they are understaffed,” Saunders said in an interview today with the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. “I would like for them to hold him accountable. I would like for him to be investigated. He’s keeping people sitting in jail for nothing.”

Saunders said that incarcerated persons have reached out to her and said that Thomas called out for medical attention for days before his death. She said she’s been told that her son was handcuffed and on the ground when he died. She said she believed the lack of medical staff at the jail contributed to her son’s death. 

“It saddens me how they can just allow my son to pass away on a cold floor and not contact his mother,” Saunders said. 

But most importantly, Saunders said, her son was not the person that Mariani painted him out to be. 

Thomas was funny, and although he was small in stature, he had a big presence, she said. He leaves behind four children, a boy and three girls. His youngest was born while he was incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail and Saunders said Thomas never got to hold her before he died. 

“He loved his children. He would do anything for them. He was a hands-on father. He was present in their lives. They ask for him,” Saunders said. “The children he leaves here are fatherless due to the actions of the Allegheny County judicial system taking a human life. My son’s life.” 

If you have any information about a death at the Allegheny County Jail, contact Brittany Hailer at bhailer08@gmail.com or via Twitter @BrittanyHailer.