Theories About Inmate's Death Put to the Test

By Aaron C. Davis and Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 18, 2008

Nearly three weeks into the investigation of Ronnie L. White's death in a Prince George's County jail cell, major assumptions about the case have begun to erode.

What began as a homicide investigation focused on a small group of jail guards thought to have keys to White's cell has been shaken by new information about the number of people who could have entered the maximum security unit and questions about how he died.

State police and FBI detectives are still attempting to interview corrections officers who were closest to the maximum-security cell on the morning of June 29, when the 19-year-old suspected of killing a police officer was found on the floor with no detectable pulse. But investigators also have found that access to the H5 unit was less restrictive than initially thought, said sources familiar with the investigation.

In addition, officials are awaiting a final ruling from the state medical examiner's office, which could come before the end of the month, to assess all theories in the case, including an assertion from the correctional officers union that White might have committed suicide.

"I haven't seen a final report yet, and I'm not going to assume one way or another what's in it," State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D) said. "Whatever it says, we'll take it and move forward from there."

White was found unresponsive in Cell 102 two days after being charged with killing a veteran county police officer, Cpl. Richard S. Findley. A day later, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) announced that the medical examiner's office had issued a preliminary ruling that White's death was a homicide and that he died of asphyxiation and strangulation; law enforcement sources said White had broken bones in the neck.

An attorney for the guards union, Clothilda Harvey, said Wednesday that Johnson spoke too soon and that investigators would never find any evidence that White was killed. She said the death would be ruled inconclusive or a suicide.

The revelation of additional evidence -- sources said a bedsheet was found in or near White's cell-- appears to lend some credence to the suicide theory. But it's unclear where, when and in what condition detectives found the sheet. If it was removed from White's cell, it could amount to tampering with evidence, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

Five medical examiners from across the country interviewed by The Washington Post said it would have been difficult for White to have broken the hyoid bone in his neck by hanging himself.

Bobby Henry, an attorney for White's family, said that he does not think White committed suicide and that any discussion of such rumors distracts from the homicide investigation.

"The medical examiner's office has already given the cause of death, and that is not going to change," Henry said. White's "neck was broken, and he was strangled to death. There's nothing that can change that, nothing. . . . You can't willy-nilly come up with a convenient explanation three weeks later of suicide."

The medical examiners interviewed by The Post noted that the hyoid, a U-shaped piece of bone and cartilage just above the Adam's apple that helps form the airway, is fairly flexible in young adults and was more likely to be broken by a violent strangulation than a hanging.

Nevertheless, they did not rule out a hanging or the possibility that a medical examiner could break the bone in the course of an autopsy. One of the doctors said it is possible to break the hyoid while performing CPR if the head is tilted forcefully.

When the examiner opens up a body, "you do not see a big 'S' for 'suicide,' " said Werner Spitz, who formerly worked in Detroit. "The truth is, you look inside, you find [the hyoid] broken, and that's the way the investigation starts."

The day White died, an official at Prince George's Hospital Center confirmed that there was no sign of trauma on the body or any visible cause of death. The official, who was not authorized to release information, spoke anonymously.

The five doctors interviewed by The Post disagreed on the likelihood that officials would have noticed bruising or other signs of trauma. Specifically, they were torn on the subject of petechiae, red marks left by burst blood vessels in the eyes and face.

Vincent DiMaio, retired chief medical examiner of San Antonio, and Dimitri L. Contostavlos, retired medical examiner of Delaware County, Pa., said petechiae were more likely in strangling and often absent in hanging. Harry Bonnell, former chief deputy medical examiner of San Diego, and William Manion, assistant medical examiner of Burlington County, N.J., said they could be found in both types of death.

In a news conference the day White died, Col. Gregory O. Harris, deputy director of operations for the county's Corrections Department, did not rule out suicide. But he said White had passed a medical and psychological evaluation and showed no suicidal tendencies when admitted to the jail. He also said White had not been allowed to have any cloth or ropelike material that could be used to hang himself.

Detectives, however, found that White had a bedsheet in his cell, the sources said.

At least four inmates have committed suicide in the Upper Marlboro facility since it opened in 1987, including Alejandro Grant, who hanged himself in 1998 in a maximum-security cell similar to the one in which White was being held.

Vicki D. Duncan, a spokeswoman for the county Department of Corrections, said suicides are rare but not impossible. Grant had been in the jail for months. "He used his sheet, and it was extremely difficult to do," Duncan said. "He had to get himself in exactly the right position."

Investigators have also discovered that officers working inside the unit could have used metal keys to let people in without leaving electronic records of the visits, said one of the sources familiar with the investigation and two former jail employees. The employees also said someone could have gained access to the unit through a second-floor maintenance entrance with keys from a shift commander's office.

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