By Aaron C. Davis and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
A 19-year-old man suspected of killing a Prince George's County police officer was strangled in the county jail two days after his arrest, the state medical examiner's office concluded yesterday.
Ronnie L. White, who was found unresponsive Sunday morning, died of asphyxiation, and two small bones in his neck were broken, according to preliminary autopsy findings. County officials said he was separated from other inmates; only seven guards and an undisclosed number of supervisors had access to the area where White was held.
The news that White was killed drew immediate condemnation from civil rights advocates. The FBI began a civil rights probe, and Maryland State Police took over the investigation of White's death at the request of county officials. Investigators from both agencies were interviewing guards at the jail last night, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said at a news conference, where he announced the medical examiner's findings.
"We live in a constitutional democracy, and no one has the right to be judge and jury," Johnson said.
Several times, while standing beside grim-faced county law enforcement officials, Johnson described himself as angry. He said police are not suspected in White's death.
Vernon Herron, the county's public safety director, said no video cameras are trained on the area where White was held. No one at the jail has been suspended or removed, the officials said.
White, charged with first-degree murder in the slaying of Cpl. Richard S. Findley on Friday, was in solitary confinement at the county Correctional Center in Upper Marlboro, jail officials have said. A guard checked on him about 20 minutes before he was found on the floor of his cell with no detectable pulse, the officials said.
Jail and hospital officials said Sunday that White's body had no visible signs of trauma and that they could not rule out the possibility that he committed suicide.
White's family was immediately suspicious. Although relatives declined to comment last night, Dorothy White, Ronnie White's aunt, said before the results of the autopsy were known that the family was convinced of foul play. "They either injected his food or his -- I don't know what," she said.
According to police charging documents made public yesterday, White "intentionally accelerated" a large pickup truck with stolen license plates toward the officer, striking and dragging him in a parking lot in Laurel on Friday morning. Findley, 39, died later at a hospital.
White was apprehended by county police that afternoon and booked into the county jail about 12 hours later. He was found unresponsive about 10:30 a.m. Sunday.
Yesterday, some civil rights advocates said the incident, involving a slain white police officer and a slain black suspect, could exacerbate historic tensions between residents of the majority-black county and white police officers.
In the mid-1990s, relations grew particularly strained when a black burglary suspect was allegedly severely beaten while handcuffed during his arrest.
Four officers, three of whom were white, were charged in the beating. A racially mixed county jury cleared them, rejecting testimony from a black officer who said he saw the officers kick and hit the man. The suspect was later acquitted.
Such tensions have eased significantly in recent years, with the police force becoming more diverse and more black leaders being elected to top office. Johnson is black, as is Melvin C. High, the police chief. Mary Lou McDonough, the interim corrections director, is white.
"The county has progressed tremendously from where we were 25 years ago," said Earl Adams Jr., first vice president of the Prince George's NAACP chapter. "It's best we reserve judgment before we try to make it a racial issue."
Zalee Harris, an activist working to form a new county branch of the NAACP, said, "This is a potentially catastrophic event between the citizens and the police and the government."
"Unfortunately, this is not going to be a right versus wrong," she said. "Unfortunately, it will turn into a race issue."
Johnson expressed anger not only at the "horrid" death of a police officer but also at the apparent killing of the suspect in the case. "If we have vigilante justice, our society will fall apart," he said. "If we tolerate these kinds of acts, the courts are superfluous."
White, who was 5-foot-10 and 140 pounds, was considered a high-profile inmate because his alleged crime involved a law enforcement official, jail officials said. Herron said that, in keeping with standard protocol, White was to have been moved to another county's jail. He remained in Prince George's over the weekend because he was not taken to the jail until early Saturday.
Vicki D. Duncan, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, said White was in a room roughly 70 square feet with four solid walls and a solid door with a small window and a slot for meal trays.
Duncan could not say the last time guards might have opened the door. "They open it when they need to," she said. "We don't keep track of when doors are opened."
White's slaying is the latest in a series of problems at the correctional center. This year, a guard who was allegedly a member of the Bloods street gang was arrested on charges of supplying cellphones to inmates; another was charged with armed robbery and assault; two inmates were found to have keys; and a detainee was wounded when he was allegedly attacked by seven gang members in a holding area. On June 4, the director of corrections was fired after four handguns disappeared from the jail armory.
A jail employee who spoke on condition of anonymity said any officer can enter the unit where White was held. "If you want to go and get in there, you can get in there," said the employee, who was not authorized to speak publicly. "If you want to get to somebody, you can."
However, the source said that to enter White's cell, someone would have needed a key from the maximum-security control booth or from officers assigned to the unit or would have had to pop the lock.
Sgt. Curtis Knowles, president of the county Correctional Officers Association, said two corrections officers were assigned to the unit where White was housed. Knowles estimated that one of the officers is in his mid-20s and the other is in his mid-30s. Both have solid records, Knowles said.
Knowles said the 10:15 a.m. check was noted on a computerized log. At 10:35, a guard went to White's cell with lunch, officials said. White did not respond to knocks, Knowles said. The officer then notified his partner that he had to go into the cell, Knowles said. That alone would not be unusual, because inmates often fall asleep, Knowles said.
The officer found White sitting on the floor, unresponsive and without a pulse, Knowles said. White was taken by ambulance to Prince George's Hospital Center, where he was pronounced dead.
White was dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit and had blankets and sheets in his cell, Knowles said. On Sunday, Col. Gregory Harris, the jail's deputy director of operations, said no cloth or rope was allowed in White's cell.
Dimitri L. Contostavlos, the retired medical examiner of Delaware County, Pa., said strangulation typically leaves bruising from a ropelike object, the hands or an arm or foot. Strangulation is often accompanied by the cracking or breaking of the hyoid, thyroid and cricoid, which form the voice box, he said.
"Generally speaking, pressure has to be applied for several minutes" to kill someone, Contostavlos said. "To subdue another adult would take pretty much all the strength of most people."
Staff writers Hamil R. Harris, Ruben Castaneda, Nelson Hernandez and James Hohmann and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.