By Ruben Castaneda, Ovetta Wiggins and Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Detectives investigating the killing of a 19-year-old inmate at the Prince George's County jail focused yesterday on corrections officers who had key-card access to the area where he was killed, and a senior county official instructed guards, some of whom had declined to participate in the probe, to meet with investigators.
Vernon Herron, head of public safety for the county, appeared at roll call at the correctional facility and told guards that they could be suspended if they do not meet with investigators, said an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Several corrections officers had declined to speak to investigators probing the slaying of Ronnie L. White, who was jailed after being charged with murder Friday in the death of county police Cpl. Richard S. Findley.
In a memo to correctional officers yesterday, Herron wrote, "We must take all steps necessary to help this investigation move rapidly and completely."
"Until this matter has been resolved, the Department of Corrections will be made available to investigators," he wrote. "Clearly each and everyone of our employees will be made available to investigators."
Also yesterday, the county branch of the NAACP called for guards who had access to White, who was strangled in solitary confinement, to be placed on leave. County officials have said it would be improper to suspend or fire employees against whom there is no specific allegation of wrongdoing.
At a news conference, the NAACP also called for the FBI to take over the criminal investigation.
June White Dillard, president of the NAACP branch, said the civil rights group has a pending lawsuit accusing the state police of racial profiling. As a result, she said, she has qualms about the agency being in charge of the investigation. "We are not exactly confident that they are the best ones to lead this case," she said.
Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George's), chairman of the county's Senate delegation, joined Dillard at the news conference. "We cannot even look as if we have the appearance in any way that there would not be a fair investigation, so we are asking the FBI to take a leadership role," Muse said.
The FBI has opened a civil rights probe into White's death. Bobby Henry, an attorney for the White family, has called for the Department of Justice to be an equal partner in the homicide investigation.
Greg Shipley, a spokesman for the state police, said his agency will conduct a "thorough, independent and unbiased investigation." He declined to release information about the investigation, and it was not clear how many of the guards who had declined to speak to investigators reversed that position yesterday.
FBI spokesman Richard J. Wolf declined to comment on the scope or progress of the bureau's inquiry.
On Tuesday, the day after state police took over the investigation at the request of county officials, only a couple of the guards investigators were most interested in speaking with agreed to be interviewed, sources said. Most declined, citing legal advice from the county's correctional officers union. At least one also cited the Fifth Amendment when refusing to speak to detectives, said the sources, who like others quoted in this report spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said Monday that seven correctional officers and an undisclosed number of supervisors had access to the area where White was held; two sources said yesterday that more than a dozen people had key-card access.
White, of Howard County, was booked into the jail early Saturday. At 10:35 a.m. Sunday, he was found unresponsive in his cell, without a detectable pulse, officials have said.
County officials have said there were no visible signs of trauma. However, the state medical examiner's office found that White had been asphyxiated and ruled his death a homicide.
A jail employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some officers and inmates would have had a clear line of sight into the area where White's cell was. The unit is about 25 feet from an enclosed control booth staffed by an officer, who can clearly view two maximum-security sections that are side by side, including White's cell, which is used for high-profile inmates, the employee said.
In addition, there is a desk in a common area about 25 feet from the cell; the desk is usually staffed by another officer, who also would have had a clear view of the cell. Also, White's cell was directly across from another maximum security unit, which holds inmates accused of violent crimes. Some of those inmates would have had a clear view of White's cell on Sunday morning, the source said.
The jail employee noted that the facility has housed two inmates accused of killing county law enforcement agents in recent years without incident.
In the memo yesterday, Herron said he was reiterating comments he made during roll call. The memo noted that corrections officers have a right to have their attorneys present during interviews and to invoke the right to remain silent. However, it said, if inmates fail to make themselves available to investigators, the county will take "whatever appropriate actions are available under the law."
Henry, the White family attorney, said relatives are upset that the investigation is taking so long. "The area where this happened is a maximum security area, where you have to swipe a card to enter or be buzzed in from a booth," Henry said. "Certainly the person in the control booth is a key witness. Certainly anyone who swiped a card to get in is a key witness."
Staff writers Hamil R. Harris, Avis Thomas-Lester, Rosalind S. Helderman and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.