A Puzzling Homicide

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

ONLY AN INDEPENDENT investigation into the killing of an inmate accused of murdering a Prince George's County police officer will satisfy a public skeptical of the county's correctional facility and police department. It is therefore reassuring that the Maryland State Police, and not Prince George's police officers, will conduct the investigation into the death of inmate Ronnie L. White. A preliminary autopsy report released yesterday evening concluded that Mr. White died of asphyxiation, and it found that two small bones in his neck were broken.

Mr. White, a 19-year-old who was accused of running down and killing the officer with a stolen pickup truck, was found unresponsive and without a pulse in a maximum-security prison cell Saturday morning. Mr. White had passed a medical examination when he was taken to the correctional facility the previous evening, and police say he was checked by officers 15 minutes before he was found unresponsive. He was pronounced dead an hour later; yesterday his case was ruled a homicide. How Mr. White died in a room containing only a desk, bed, toilet and sink is a mystery. Officials familiar with the county's correctional facility said the death of a young, apparently healthy man in custody is highly unusual.

It is troubling that the correctional center where Mr. White was being held has a reputation for officer misconduct. This year, one corrections officer was arrested on suspicion of supplying cellphones to inmates; another was charged with armed robbery and assault. Several inmates were also found with handcuff keys. The director of corrections was fired June 4 after four of the jail's handguns were found to be missing.

As inquiries into Mr. White's death begin, it is important to pause and honor the officer who died, Cpl. Richard S. Findley, 39. The death of Cpl. Findley, who had two young daughters and was also a volunteer firefighter, is a terrible reminder of the dangers of police work. Until a tragedy occurs, these perils are too easily overlooked by those who benefit from the willingness of these brave men and women to put their lives on the line daily. Cpl. Findley, a member of a special unit that targeted car thieves and repeat offenders committing violent crimes, chose one of the most dangerous jobs in the police force and did not back down when Mr. White allegedly charged at him in the pickup truck. Cpl. Findley was attacked less than two miles from where his close friend, Cpl. Steven F. Gaughan, died in a shootout in 2005. Cpl. Gaughan and Cpl. Findley, who belonged to the same unit, are the only two county officers killed in the line of duty this decade.

The best way to honor Cpl. Findley is to seek the same kind of justice he upheld in his 10 years as a police officer. An independent investigation of Mr. White's death is the best way to provide a satisfactory and credible explanation of how he died -- and of who may have killed him.

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