The 2020 death of an Appling County man while in custody at the Glynn County Detention Center was ruled a suicide Monday at a coroner’s inquest.
A jury of five concluded that Thomas Matthew Greene died of suicide by hanging on Nov. 16, 2020, while in solitary confinement at the county jail. He was 21.
The determination was met with tears by Greene’s family, who said they disagree with the jury’s decision. His sister, fiancée, uncle and mother testified during the proceeding in Glynn County Superior Court that Greene never would have taken his own life and that they believe other factors were involved in his death.
Greene was booked Aug. 24, 2020, and charged with obstruction by use of threats or violence and criminal trespassing. He spent more than 80 days in jail before his death.
The inquest was prompted by a change in the determination of manner and cause of death by Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner Dr. Joni Skipper. She initially ruled Greene’s death as a suicide in a report on March 2, 2022. She later amended that finding in August 2022 after she became aware that the video investigators had seen was not in the case file and had not been downloaded for viewing at a later date.
The video showed jail guards walking Greene back to his cell after a disciplinary hearing held a short time before he was found with a sheet around his neck during a routine cell check, testimony at the inquest said.
Skipper testified that without that video, she did not feel comfortable making a final determination on the manner of Greene’s death, in part because without it she could not determine for sure how and when internal injuries he had suffered occurred. Greene had an injured spleen and liver when he died, her report said.
Those injuries were consistent with and could have come from the roughly two-hours of CPR and other resuscitation attempts made by guards, emergency medical personnel and doctors at the emergency room, Skipper said. But she also was aware he had been in a fight shortly after midnight on Nov. 16.
Major Stephanie Britt, a Glynn County deputy, conducted the investigation into Greene’s death for the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office. She testified that Greene had been in a fight at around 12:19 a.m. on Nov. 16, 2020, over people being loud while others were trying to sleep in a barracks-style room with multiple bunks.
Greene had suffered a bite to his hand and a few other scratches in the fracas but had not complained of any pain or injury to his torso or abdomen area, Britt said.
Greene was taken later to a disciplinary hearing at around 4:30 p.m. that day. After the hearing he was sent to solitary confinement for 14 days.
Guards marked that Greene was sitting up in his cell during a routine check at 4:53 p.m.
Jail guard Shane Grooms testified that he conducted the next check at 5:23 p.m. and found Greene unresponsive with a sheet around his neck. In video shown to the jury, Grooms is seen opening the door window and looking into Greene’s cell, then rushing down the stairs and out of the picture. He comes back a few minutes later, opens Greene’s cell door and begins resuscitation attempts as other guards arrive on the scene.
Greene was taken to the emergency room of Southeast Georgia Health System where he was pronounced dead. His body was sent to the GBI lab in Pooler where Skipper performed the autopsy.
Greene’s family members testified that they believe there are unaccounted for holes in the evidence and that a determination of suicide is unwarranted. They noted in statements made during inquest testimony that record keeping of when Greene was in his cell and at the disciplinary hearing are inconsistent.
They also questioned why the video Skipper sought was not preserved and why the case was not handed over to the GBI for investigation as a jail death at the detention center had been just weeks prior.
Additionally, Greene’s uncle, Ted Hartley, testified that he had never told anyone that his nephew had attempted suicide previously. An investigative report presented during the proceeding said Hartley had made that statement at the emergency room.
Greene’s sister, Candy Walker, said Greene had been complaining about how the guards treated the inmates, but otherwise seemed to be in good spirits despite the circumstances.
She knew Greene had struggled with drug addiction and with anxiety, but had never talked about or shown any signs of suicidal tendencies. Greene had even gotten engaged to his girlfriend on the Tuesday prior to his death, she said.
“It doesn’t add up,” Walker said.
Greene’s mother, Annette Greene, was adamant during testimony that her son did not take his own life.
“I know my son very well,” she said. “Anyone can tell you he loved his mother and his family. … I never thought for a minute my son had committed suicide.”
The family issued a statement through their lawyer, Waite Thomas, following the inquest.
“The family would like to thank the first responders and health-care workers who tried to save Matthew’s life. They would like to thank the coroner for the compassion he’s shown them and for bringing this inquest,” the statement said. “Based on the testimony by the family, the family obviously disagrees with the jury’s decision and they still have many of the same questions regarding the preservation of video, the discrepancies in reporting and the failure to refer the matter to the GBI. While this is not the result they wanted, the family is hopeful some good might come from this process and that somehow, through Matthew’s death, another family might be prevented from having to go through the same thing.”
A coroner’s inquest is an inquiry into the manner and cause of an individual’s death. It is presided over by the coroner or a deputy coroner, recorded by a court reporter and decided by a jury of five people. There is one alternate juror.
Unlike a trial, inquests are moderated by an attorney appointed by the coroner. The attorney’s job is not to prove or disprove anything, but instead to present all the facts from the investigation so that the jury can determine the manner of an individual’s death.
Attorney Beth Boone of Hall Booth Smith acted as the moderator for Greene’s inquest.