By Aaron C. Davis and Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
The head of the Prince George's County chapter of the NAACP yesterday criticized what she said was a lack of progress in investigating the death in June of an inmate accused of killing a county police officer.
"While this investigation is taking so long, people are losing the trust that they had in the county government, and it is a very big, heavy cloud not only on the correctional officers . . . but on the county," chapter President June White Dillard said. "The longer it takes, people will begin to suspect that . . . the county government is trying to do a coverup, and that is not what we want to happen."
Dillard's comments drew a rebuke yesterday from county Public Safety Director Vernon R. Herron, who said county officials are no longer in charge of the investigation. He said they turned it over to state and federal authorities June 30, the day after Ronnie L. White was found strangled in his jail cell.
"We're awaiting the results of the investigation like everyone else," Herron said. "I think it's unfair for Ms. Dillard to criticize and to indicate that the county government is involved in any coverup. Nothing could be further from the truth."
Dillard's comments came nearly six weeks after the last significant public update on the case from law enforcement. White, 19, was found unresponsive and with no detectable pulse in his cell in the Prince George's County Corrections Center on June 29. That was less than two days after he was charged with killing a veteran county police officer, Cpl. Richard S. Findley, by striking him while driving a stolen truck.
The day after White died, county officials said the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner had preliminarily ruled his death a homicide by asphyxiation and strangulation. At the request of county officials, the Maryland State Police and the civil rights division of the FBI took over the investigation.
Suspicion fell on correctional officers after County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) said that only a few guards, and no other inmates, were believed to have had access to White's maximum-security cell. Some correctional officers also initially declined to meet with investigators.
In mid-July, an attorney for the correctional officers disputed that union members had been uncooperative and predicted that investigators would find that White had committed suicide.
Spokesmen for the state police and the FBI declined to comment about the case yesterday. Law enforcement officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said interviews with most guards were completed weeks ago.
At the NAACP news conference, Dillard also called on county State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D) to expedite the investigation by demanding that the state's medical examiner issue his final report on White's death. Ivey has said he will take the findings of the investigation before a grand jury, but first needs to receive the final medical examiner's report.
Dillard's complaints about the pace of the investigation were echoed by Bobby Henry, an attorney for White's family.
"The White family is very disappointed in the progress of the investigation at this point," he said. "We want there to be a thorough and detailed investigation, but we believe it could be done in a much more expeditious manner. It has become painfully obvious that this investigation and the prosecution of these wrongdoers are well beyond those charged with those responsibilities at this time."
Cindy Feldstein, a spokeswoman for the Maryland medical examiner's office, said doctors are striving to complete their report on White's death by the end of the month. She said examiners are waiting for results from a final portion of the autopsy: tests on White's brain and nervous system.
Ivey said he would rather be "fair than fast" in receiving evidence and prosecuting the case.
"If the question is, 'Am I going to pressure the medical examiner to do something faster?' The answer is no. I think it's important to let the medical examiner take the time he needs," Ivey said. "This case is too important."