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$5 Million Settlement in Death of Georgia Prisoner Left by Guards in Cell on Fire

by David M. Reutter

 

On November 16, 2023, the Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) agreed to pay $5 million to the estate of Thomas Henry Giles, 31, a mentally ill prisoner who died after guards left him for hours locked inside a cell on fire at Augusta State Medical Prison (ASMP). It was reportedly the largest payout ever for a state prisoner’s death.

As a form of protest for being denied access to his counselor, Giles set fire to the mattress in his cell at about 2 p.m. on October 28, 2020. Guards Robert Roberson and Marcus Phillips watched as he used a shank to expose wires in a light fixture and sparked the blaze. But they took no action to stop him. Nor did they try to extinguish the fire. They also made no attempt to remove Giles. As smoke escaped the cell and filtered into the hallway, Sgt. Reggie Crite opened the food flap on Giles’ cell door. But no one did anything else to dissipate the heavy smoke filling the cell. Crite did, however, open a door to vent smoke from the cell block.

Giles begged guard Brittney Seals to render aid and remove him from the cell. But she responded that escorting other prisoners took priority. As smoke billowed through the cellblock, guards moved two prisoners in adjacent cells around 3 p.m.. But it was not until after 5 p.m.—three hours after the fire started—that anyone entered Giles’ cell. By then, he was dead.

“There were any number of opportunities to have prevented the fire in the first place or to have done something about it early on or later,” said Zack Greenamyre, one of the attorneys who represented Giles’ estate. “Those opportunities have continually gone lacking.”

An autopsy found Giles had a carbon monoxide level of 76%, well above the 40% to 60% levels considered lethal. “While the decedent started the fire himself, based on the investigative reports, prison staff did not attempt to prevent or extinguish the fire and did not remove the decedent from his locked cell for several hours after the onset of the fire,” the medical examiner’s report stated. “As such, the manner of death is best classified as Homicide.”

Yet DOC took no disciplinary or criminal action against the guards. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that only one of the guards involved is still employed at ASMP, promoted to a supervisory position.

One of Giles’ sisters, Vanessa Loyal, served as Administrator of his estate and filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court for the Southern District of Georgia on September 22, 2022, accusing DOC and its employees of deliberate indifference to his serious needs by failing to protect him from the smoke inhalation that caused his death. The $5 million settlement was reached on November 16, 2023, after discovery in the case laid bare the callous disregard for life shown by guards. It included costs and fees for Greenamyre and his Atlanta firm, Mitchell and Shapiro LLP, as well as another attorney for the estate, Natanya Brooks, of Brooks Injury Law in Peachtree Corners. Under terms of the agreement, the state Department of Administrative Services paid $3 million, while Lexington Insurance Co. paid $1.3 million, plus $4,835 per month for 15 years beginning on December 15, 2023, and another $10,000 annually for 15 years beginning on August 4, 2024.

“I think they believed at the beginning they could get a discount on the case because probably that’s what they always do,” said Brooks. “And I think as the case progressed, depositions were taken, they realized that if it went to a jury, a jury was going to care that this is a real person, that this person was murdered, should have been taken out of his cell, and there’s really no excuse from anyone.” See: Loyal v. Georgia Dep’t of Corr., USDC (S.D. Ga.), Case No. 1:22-cv-00084.

 

Additional source: Atlanta Journal Constitution.

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Related legal case

Loyal v. Georgia Dep’t of Corr.