ROCKFORD — Family members of a Rockford man who died after hanging himself in the Winnebago County Jail last year have filed a wrongful death lawsuit contending he wouldn’t have died if the jail staff had checked him properly.
Justin T. Matthews was 19 years old when he hanged himself by threading a thermal shirt through a shelf inside his cell. The lawsuit against Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana, corrections officer Matthew Larson and Winnebago County, filed late Friday night in Winnebago County Circuit Court, alleges that Matthews voiced suicidal thoughts upon entering the jail on Aug. 24, 2017, after he was arrested in the stabbing death of a Wisconsin man.
Matthews’ death was “absolutely” preventable, an attorney for his family said Tuesday.
“Justin’s suicide was preventable by having him in a suicide-free environment and having meaningful and quality observations in (the) environment he has been placed in,” said Craig M. Sandberg, an attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Matthews’ grandmother Beverly Lundeen and a co-administrator of Matthews’ estate, Matthew Emigholz.
“We’re confident we’re going to be able to demonstrate the defendants were reckless and a cause for Justin’s death,” Sandberg said.
Between Aug. 24, 2017, and Jan. 20, 2018, when Matthews was found hanging in his cell, he “complained that he frequently saw shadows and heard voices,” the lawsuit says.
The correctional officer, Larson, reported seeing Matthews standing up and pacing around his cell at approximately 3:15 a.m. on the day of his death. Larson checked on Matthews at 5 a.m., and again at 5:15 a.m., according to the lawsuit, and both times Larson saw Matthews sitting underneath the shelf with his arm extended. But Larson only briefly observed Matthews at 5 a.m., according to the lawsuit, and Larson didn’t enter the cell to check on Matthews until approximately 5:15 a.m.
When Larson entered the cell, he found Matthews with the thermal shirt tied around his neck and to the shelf, which he was underneath, the lawsuit states. Matthews was pronounced dead at 5:50 a.m. and the Winnebago County Coroner’s Office concluded he died of asphyxiation by hanging.
“It wouldn’t take a very long time to render him unconscious,” Sandberg said, adding he doesn’t yet have records indicating whether Matthews was in that position earlier than 5 a.m. “That is a strange position for someone to be in at 5 a.m. How meaningful was your checking on him?”
Jail Superintendent Bob Redmond declined to comment on Tuesday, referring questions to the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s office, which represents the sheriff and county in lawsuits. Katie Zimmerman, a spokeswoman for the state’s attorney’s office, said the office could not comment on pending litigation.
Sandberg said that although 15 minutes is the standard interval in which jailers must check on inmates in mental health units, those every 15-minute checks must be randomized so inmates can’t anticipate them.
Matthews was indicted on Aug. 23, 2017, on 10 counts of first-degree murder and one count each of aggravated battery and unlawful restraint in the death of Brian Thomas Abbott. Abbott, 21, of Racine, was found stabbed to death on Dec. 22, 2016, at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and 10th Street in Rockford.
“People shouldn’t prejudge whether or not Justin would have been found guilty,” Sandberg said. “Because of the failures of the sheriff, he was prevented from his opportunity of showing he was not guilty. This would have been an issue of self defense.”