Matthew Ryan Hall's Weber County Jail suicide came with ample warning

Monday , June 05, 2017 - 5:00 AM1 comment

NADIA PFLAUM, Standard-Examiner staff

OGDEN — A months-long Standard-Examiner review of police reports, court documents and jail records reveals that a seriously mentally ill man, deemed incompetent by the court, managed to fatally injure himself while on suicide watch in the Weber County Jail.

Matthew Ryan Hall, 31, was considered a suicide risk on the day he was booked at the Weber County Jail, Nov. 18, 2015.

Fifteen months later, still marooned in jail, Hall ended up on suicide watch again. A paper trail details his rapid decline, leading up to his Feb. 24, 2017, injuries. 

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Hall’s journey to jail started with a disturbance call that led police to approach him on 7th Street in Ogden. Hall refused to give them his name, saying he didn’t believe they were real cops. When they forced the issue, he became combative, striking several officers and, at one point, gaining control of an officer’s Taser.

He was booked on eight charges: three counts of assault on a police officer, disarming a police officer of an energy device (the Taser), attempted assault by a prisoner, interference with an arresting police officer, failure to stop at the command of law enforcement and failure to disclose identity.

Upon arraignment, Hall was appointed a public defender, Jason Widdison. On Feb. 1, 2016, Widdison asked for court psychological testing to determine Hall’s competency to proceed in court.

Citing attorney-client privilege, Widdison declined the Standard-Examiner’s requests for comment.

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As Hall’s case moved through the courts, guided by Widdison, he opted for a plea deal. He was scheduled to be sentenced June 23, 2016, but sentencing was postponed so experts could weigh in on his mental health and ability to proceed.

When competency is in question and an attorney files what is called an “alienist petition” for psychological examination, a defendant’s right to a speedy trial is put on pause. The determination of competency, and the restoration of competency, if deemed necessary, can take months or even years, state public defenders say.

In the meantime, a defendant committed to the state mental hospital for treatment won’t see the inside of a courtroom until the Department of Human Services is confident a person has the mental capacity to understand their legal situation.  

But they may not see the inside of a mental hospital, either. The Utah State Hospital has 100 beds set aside for inmates undergoing competency restoration in order to return to court for trial, or in Hall’s case, sentencing. The beds are almost always occupied. 

Due to the shortage of space set aside for inmates, the state hospital sends “outreach workers” to visit county jails statewide, approximating competency restoration treatment in the correctional setting.

Hall’s competency hearing was held in Second District Judge Joseph Bean’s courtroom Sept. 20, 2016. Hall was brought from the Weber County Jail to appear, with Widdison. Also present were three experts who had examined Hall in the county jail and were prepared to testify on their findings.

During the hearing, Hall stared blankly ahead, unresponsive and vacant. Prior entering the courtroom, he had urinated in the court’s holding cell.

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The Standard-Examiner obtained the audio recording of Hall’s competency hearing. 

The first to testify was Dr. Ricky Hawks, a veteran psychologist for Weber County Human Services who, since his retirement, does contract work as a forensic psychologist for the state.

Hawks said that he learned initially that Hall was refusing to take medication or to meet with the jail’s mental health service personnel. He said Hall complained of having trouble sleeping and hearing voices. He suffered from unspecified schizophrenia and depressive disorder, Hawks said.

“I called the jail this morning and spoke with a nurse, Nicole,” Hawks said. “...The first words out of her mouth were, ‘He’s still crazy.’”

When Hawks first interviewed Hall, he said Hall was able to periodically communicate. He had insight into the voices he heard, and his paranoia.

But the way Hall appeared in court that day — mute and distant — was “a deterioration from when I saw him in February,” Hawks told the court.

Rhett Potter, a clinical social worker, and psychologist Renee Wilkinson also testified.

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Potter said that at first he suspected Hall of “malingering,” or exaggerating a mental illness. But the second time Potter met with Hall in jail, four months later, there was a marked difference, he said.

“A lot of times, silence will build the anxiety to get a person to involve in conversation, so I just sat quietly. It turned out to be about 40 minutes of quiet, really.”

Wilkinson said she’d also initially attributed Hall’s behavior at the time of his arrest to the effects of methamphetamine. She said he talked to her about delusions, “about being killed.” She diagnosed him with an amphetamine-induced psychotic disorder and stimulant abuse.

In her third visit, however, Hall’s behavior changed her mind. 

“In the past, there used to be a catatonic condition, a catatonic schizophrenia where they would be like this for hours on end,” Wilkinson said. “I’m not sure if that’s the case with him, it’s hard to know. For his sake, I hope not.”

All three experts recommended that Hall be treated in a hospital setting. Agreeing, Judge Bean found Hall incompetent to proceed and ordered him to the custody of Weber Human Services and the Utah State Hospital. Jurisdiction over Hall’s case would not return to the judge until Hall’s competency was restored. 

Five months later, Hall was on suicide watch. 

On a video recording filmed from a guards’ bay with a wide view of the terrarium-like cellblock, Hall can be seen standing naked in a cell. The room is white except for brushed metal fixtures: a toilet, sink and a metal bar, presumably to assist the handicapped. Hall gazes outward at the empty guard station, as if directly at the camera. Abruptly he snaps to a quarter turn, charges at the wall, and with both hands against it, rears back, ramming his forehead into the surface. The force sends him staggering backward.

He walks unsteadily to the same place and, with the same violence, slams headfirst into the wall twice more. A bloodstain appears on the white paint. Groggily, head hanging down, he turns to the back wall. He steps lightly from the toilet to the sink. He straightens to his full 5 feet, 7 inches. Then he launches head-first into the concrete floor.

He lays there motionless, face down in a growing pool of blood.

Jail staff noticed him less than 2 minutes later; EMTs arrived 10 minutes after that. His self-inflicted injuries — just a gash on the forehead, the jail staff assumed — included a “devastating C4 on C5 fracture dislocation” in his neck, hospital records show.

Though a responding jail guard asks twice if they should put a “neck thing” on him, nobody stabilized Hall’s head.

Instead, they propped him up in a seated position on a chair in the hall and wrapped his head in gauze.

Doctors later found Hall was paralyzed from the chest down.

He underwent surgery to fuse his broken spine and hardly regained consciousness, apart from telling his brother to let him die. His ventilator was removed and he expired April 7 at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City.

Five months earlier, when he was deemed incompetent for sentencing, Hall became a patient of the state hospital — even though he never set foot in the facility. In lieu of admittance, Utah State Hospital sent outreach workers to see Hall in jail for assessment.

One outreach worker who visited Hall, when contacted by the Standard-Examiner, referred all questions to the state hospital’s administration.

Don Rosenbaum, Utah State Hospital’s director of forensic services, said the outreach workers who visited Hall in jail were likely provided with the inmate’s previous medical evaluations, court documents, police reports and discovery information.

There were 21 disciplinary write-ups on Hall’s behavior, logged by jail guards and staff. The reports describe bizarre and alarming behavior by Hall, observed by both staff and fellow inmates. In one instance, he alluded to suicide. On another, he summoned a guard and said he was having suicidal thoughts. He went long stretches without eating or speaking. 

Such reports aren’t commonly given to the outreach workers as background prior to in-jail assessments, Rosenbaum said, but state workers can request them to get more context. 

The outreach worker and Rosenbaum would not comment on whether anyone asked for Hall’s disciplinary records. 

The first hospital outreach report sent to Judge Bean, dated Dec. 14, 2016, noted that Hall was refusing to take his medication.

“Outreach staff suspect he is malingering,” it said.

“Malingering,” or faking a mental illness, is a Catch-22 in the Utah justice system. Hall couldn’t get to the hospital for treatment so his competency wasn’t improving. Without being found competent to participate in his own defense, he couldn’t get sentenced and transferred to to the Utah State Prison, where the medical staff is better equipped to treat mental illnesses.

Hall was 29th in line for intake at the hospital the day his head hit the concrete floor.

Contact reporter Nadia Pflaum at npflaum@standard.net.

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