Shameful Silence

Thursday, July 3, 2008

IT IS UNSURPRISING but still infuriating that Prince George's County correctional officers have refused to cooperate with investigators looking into the death of inmate Ronnie L. White. These officers, who swore to serve the cause of justice, are preventing investigators from uncovering the circumstances of the death of Mr. White, who was strangled, according to a preliminary autopsy report. The officers, who were initially questioned by investigators because they had access to Mr. White's cell, have the right not to make self-incriminating statements. But their silence will lead many to assume the worst.

The actions of the county's correctional officers union are just as troubling. Sgt. Curtis Knowles, union president, has done little to encourage cooperation, criticizing investigators for trying to question the officers. Sgt. Knowles also failed to acknowledge that a criminal proceeding was underway, even though investigators have been clear about their intentions. The union should show better leadership by supporting efforts to uncover the truth rather than acting as defense attorney for the officers.

The investigation, which is being conducted by Maryland State Police and the FBI, wasn't going to be easy even with the cooperation of officers. Without officers' cooperation, and without any recorded evidence of wrongdoing, finding out what happened to Mr. White will be even harder. Fortunately, Prince George's officials have taken aggressive action to encourage cooperation. Yesterday, the county's head of public safety, Vernon Herron, ordered the officers to "make themselves available" to investigators and warned that they could be disciplined if they refused. One officer who had declined to cooperate reportedly met with investigators yesterday.

County officials rightly requested an independent investigation of Mr. White's death before the Prince George's Police Department could launch an internal investigation. The decision allows State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, who showed leadership in prosecuting former police officer Keith A. Washington in the shooting of two furniture deliverymen last year, to retain lead responsibility for pursuing any criminal charges. Mr. Ivey's involvement increases the likelihood that any officers who might be accused of misconduct will be prosecuted on a local level rather than in federal court. A local prosecution would produce the most credible results for many Prince George's residents.

The details of Mr. White's death are as hazy now as they were before the preliminary autopsy. It is unclear why, if Mr. White was strangled, there were no signs of a struggle, such as bruising on his neck. It is also unclear how Mr. White was strangled in a maximum-security jail cell that was under surveillance by multiple officers. And why, considering the fact that he was accused of killing a county police officer, wasn't Mr. White transferred to a jail outside Prince George's County? These are questions that state police and the FBI must attempt to answer.

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