By Aaron C. Davis and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
Several Prince George's County correctional officers who had access to a 19-year-old inmate found strangled in solitary confinement Sunday have initially declined to speak to investigators of the slaying, a source familiar with the interrogations said.
The Maryland State Police and federal agents were investigating the death of Ronnie L. White, who was killed less than 36 hours after he was booked into the county correctional center on first-degree murder charges in the hit-and-run death Friday of county police Cpl. Richard S. Findley.
It wasn't clear why the correctional officers reportedly declined to answer questions. Sgt. Curtis Knowles, president of the county's correctional officers union, said the union's position is that its members can be interviewed only during work hours and with a union representative or attorney present, unless a criminal investigation is underway.
However, a state police spokesman said the agency considers its efforts a "criminal investigation."
County police expressed frustration yesterday that the controversy over White's death seemed to be overshadowing the death of Findley, whose funeral is scheduled for tomorrow.
"We all understand that the death of this kid is tragic. However, his actions that led to him being in that predicament don't even begin to rise to the level of the sacrifice that Findley made," said Vince Canales, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89. "Everybody needs to take a minute and focus solely on putting him to rest. We'll get back to the investigation when we have properly buried Corporal Findley."
Sources close to the investigation, who like others in this report spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing, said county police collected most of the forensic evidence from White's cell Sunday, before state police took over the investigation at the request of county officials. An attorney for White's family called on the Justice Department, which has launched a civil rights probe, to be a partner in the criminal investigation.
"This did not happen on some dark, abandoned, lonely road," Bobby G. Henry Jr., the family's attorney, said at a news conference. "This happened in broad daylight, in the custody of county officials. Everyone who has someone or knows someone who is in the county correctional facility should have a problem with that."
Late in the day, Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. attorney for Maryland, issued a statement saying his office supports State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey of Prince George's, who intends to retain lead responsibility for the criminal investigation. Ivey said he would take the findings of the investigation to a grand jury.
The news that White was slain has drawn condemnations from civil rights activists and others, including County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D). Johnson said late Monday that seven guards and an undisclosed number of supervisors had access to White, a Howard County resident. He said police are not suspected in his death.
Late Monday, detectives and agents appeared at the home of one of the correctional officers, and they visited the homes of additional guards yesterday, officials said. About two dozen investigators were at the jail Monday night, and many returned yesterday to continue their work.
Knowles said officers would probably have had to swipe a computerized ID card to enter the unit that housed White's cell. A log of which cards were swiped, and when, to enter the area should be available, he said.
White's 70-square-foot cell has a standard metal bunk, a metal toilet-and-sink unit and a thin mattress, jail employees said. The maximum security cells have four walls and a door, not bars. The door has a small window and a slot for meal trays. Inmates are usually kept locked inside for 23 hours a day.
Officials have said that no video cameras were trained on the area where White was held. Most jails across the country follow identical or similar protocols about cameras, said Bobbi Luna, first vice president of the board of directors of the American Jail Association.
Luna said many jails have cameras for monitoring but not recording. Luna said she was not aware of any jails that have cameras trained on individual cells, largely because of cost constraints.
John Erzen, a spokesman for Johnson, said the state police have given the county no information about whether officers are cooperating with the investigation. Erzen would not say whether the county would suspend officers who do not cooperate with investigators. Johnson said yesterday that no one at the jail had been suspended or removed.
Knowles criticized investigators for approaching correctional officers outside of work. "It doesn't make sense to go to a guy's house at 10 p.m. to get a statement if it's not a criminal investigation," he said. He declined to identify the officer involved, and he did not say whether the officer cooperated with investigators.
Knowles said he was working in the jail the day White died. "When I first entered the scene, I didn't know who this individual was," he said. "I didn't know this guy. It was mentioned while I was standing there who he was."
Knowles said, "We were assured by the initial county police investigation that everything looked good and there was no foul play."
White was in Unit 5 of the jail, which has 1,300 inmates. The unit is one of two adjacent horseshoe-shape maximum-security corridors, each with 46 to 48 cells, according to jail employees.
Cameras monitor hallways leading to the units so that guards in a central command center can see who is entering or exiting. The cameras show only live video and do not record the hallway activity.
Some lawmakers and community leaders said they shared the concern among officers that Findley's death was being overshadowed.
"I'm concerned that the gravity of his death has been put on the back burner," said Del. Barbara A. Frush (D-Prince George's), who had known Findley for years.
Frush, a frequent critic of Johnson, said she wishes that he had taken more time at his Monday news conference to share details about Findley's life and sacrifice. "I would hope the county executive would make every effort to let the people know that this man was a hero."
Johnson said yesterday that Findley "deserves to be remembered as a great police officer."
"We should not get the two mixed up," he said of Findley and White. "But this is a big situation, a big tragedy for someone to be in our custody and die allegedly in these circumstances."
C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George's), chairman of the county's Senate delegation, said he would address the need for "swift justice" for White at an NAACP event today. Muse praised county officials for appointing an outside law enforcement agency to lead the investigation but said he feared it has cast a shadow over grieving for Findley.
"I'm anxiously hoping they solve this quickly," he said. "Somebody got in there. It's a jail. Somebody knows who did it and how they got in there."
Staff writers Ruben Castaneda, Hamil R. Harris, James Hohmann and Jenna Johnson and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.