By Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 2008
An autopsy report says a 19-year-old inmate who died in June after being found unresponsive in his cell at the Prince George's County jail was strangled, possibly with a sheet, a towel or the "crux of the elbow."
The report, delivered yesterday to investigators, confirms an initial finding that the death of Ronnie L. White, less than two days after he was charged in the slaying of a county police officer, was a homicide.
White was assaulted and suffered a broken bone in his neck, says the report, reviewed by The Washington Post.
Even so, the report did not appear to settle a dispute that has raged since soon after White's death June 29, when County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) publicly cast suspicion on corrections officers, and the guards' union insisted that White's death was a suicide.
State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey appeared to regard the issue as unresolved yesterday, saying of the possibility of suicide, "we haven't ruled out -- or in -- anything from that perspective."
Ivey said the report, along with the findings of the police investigation, would be presented to a grand jury. He stopped short of saying he would seek an indictment.
A law enforcement source close to the investigation said authorities have information that "supports a suicide just as easily as a homicide." The source, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, declined to provide details.
Although jail officials have repeatedly said White was found slumped on the floor of his cell, an attorney for the Correctional Officers Association said for the first time yesterday that guards have told investigators they found him hanging after he apparently took his own life.
"They found him in a hanging, suspended position," the attorney, Clothilda Harvey, said last night. She said White's body was moved so he could receive medical attention.
Through a spokesman, Ivey declined to comment on Harvey's claim.
Bobby Henry, an attorney for White's family, called Harvey's claim "disingenuous at best."
"How do we go from no sign of foul play to someone finding him hanging, allegedly, in the cell -- that's a quantum leap," Henry said.
The medical examiner's report comes almost three months after White was found with no detectable pulse on the floor of his cell at the jail in Upper Marlboro. He had been arrested less than 48 hours earlier on charges that he ran down Cpl. Richard S. Findley, a decorated county officer.
Shortly after White was found, Johnson asked the state police and the FBI to take over the investigation. He said no other inmates and only a handful of jail employees had access to White's cell.
In the months since, however, investigators have found that access to the maximum-security unit was less restrictive than initially thought. Also, sources have said a bedsheet was found in or near White's cell, a development the corrections officers' union said could lend credence to the suicide claim.
The medical examiner's final report leaves intact the cause of death listed on a death certificate issued in June. It also confirms, as county officials have said, that a small bone in White's neck, the hyoid bone, was broken.
Assistant Medical Examiner J. Laron Locke suggested that the injuries were inconsistent with hanging. "Hanging rarely causes fracture of the hyoid and [is] usually associated with a ligature mark," he wrote. "Mr. White was not suspended at the time of discovery, nor was any object attached to any item that could have suspended him by the neck."
Five medical examiners contacted by The Post this summer said the hyoid was more likely to be broken during a violent strangulation than in a suicide.
The nine-page report also notes the presence of "numerous" petechiae, red marks left by burst blood vessels in the eyes and face. The five doctors interviewed by The Post were split on whether such hemorrhaging is present equally in hanging and strangulation or is more present in strangulation.
On Wednesday, Locke returned to the jail to re-create theories about a possible suicide, including hanging. Harvey said she helped in the re-creation, which she described as difficult.
"We have no way of reenacting that scenario because at the time, a person isn't going to be focused on recording how he was positioned, but in saving his life," she said. "Obviously, you are going to mess with, or change, or tamper with the scene. You're not paying attention to where the person was and how the knot was tied; you're trying to save him."
Yesterday afternoon, Ivey characterized the autopsy report as a "critical step" but said it "doesn't take us all the way to the end of the investigation." Ivey said that he thinks the medical examiner will be open to amending his ruling of homicide if additional information warrants it. "Circumstances require us to be very careful about how we move forward," Ivey said. "We're going to remain open to all possibilities."