By Aaron C. Davis and Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 20, 2008
For days, there was no dispute over the official account of how an inmate charged in the slaying of a county police officer was found unresponsive in his cell at the Prince George's County jail: Ronnie White, 19, was slumped on the floor beside his bunk.
But more than a week later, two sources now say, a corrections officer privately told investigators that a sheet had been found around White's neck. As the guard described it, the sheet was removed, and a suicide was mistaken for a homicide.
Community leaders and an attorney for White's family expressed outrage yesterday over the guard's claim, which they view as an attempt to cover up a murder. They are also angry about State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey's reluctance while his investigation is ongoing to endorse the state medical examiner's ruling that White was strangled and his death was a homicide.
Since the guard came forward, though his account remained secret, the possibility that White hanged himself has been given consideration by investigators. On Wednesday, lawyers, prosecutors and a state medical examiner crowded into cell 102 in the Prince George's Corrections Center, where White was found alone June 29.
Corrections officer Anthony McIntosh, one of three assigned to the unit that day, was present to describe how White and the sheet were allegedly found, according to several sources close to the investigation. An officer of similar height and weight as White -- 5 feet 11 and 160 pounds -- tried to contort into a position in which White could have hanged himself, two of the sources said.
Assistant State Medical Examiner J. Laron Locke left the reenactment apparently unconvinced. The next morning, he signed White's long-awaited autopsy report, ruling his death a homicide by asphyxiation. He concluded that White had been strangled, probably with a sheet, a towel or the crux of an elbow.
One of the sources familiar with the investigation, who, like other sources, spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was McIntosh who came forward with the claim about the sheet. According to the source, McIntosh said he panicked, pulled the sheet away and left White in the cell.
Timothy Fitts, an attorney representing McIntosh, declined to comment yesterday.
The autopsy report drew a heated response Thursday from an attorney for the corrections officers' union, Clothilda Harvey. She alleged for the first time that officers had found White in a "hanging, suspended position."
Harvey's statement met with immediate skepticism from some community leaders. "No one is going to believe" it was a suicide, June White-Dillard, president of the county's chapter of the NAACP, said yesterday.
Dillard called on Ivey, who has not ruled out suicide, to move forward immediately with a grand jury investigation and to seek an indictment. Dillard said that if Ivey and investigators concluded that White's death was a suicide, the public "would see it as an absolute cover-up."
Bobby Henry, an attorney for the White family, said the reenactment was a luxury that would not be afforded to suspects who are members of the public, not corrections officers.
"The reenactment was inappropriate," he said. "You have the attorney for the union who's maintained that nobody did anything wrong, the target of the investigation, all going into the alleged crime scene together? If there was going to be a reenactment, why wasn't the White family invited to observe? It doesn't pass the smell test."
Henry renewed his call for the FBI to assume responsibility for the investigation. The day after White's death, Maryland State Police and the FBI took over the probe at the request of County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), who at a news conference denounced vigilante justice and said only a handful of guards had access to White's cell. The state police are investigating the homicide, and the FBI is conducting a civil rights probe.
McIntosh and corrections officer Ramon Davis were assigned to patrol H-5, the maximum-security unit where White was held. A third officer, Russell Hardesty, was assigned to an enclosed control booth with a partial view of White's cell. White, who was charged with running down Cpl. Richard S. Findley two days earlier, had been in the jail just over 36 hours.
George Harper, an attorney for Davis, declined to comment yesterday.
Darrell Robinson, Hardesty's attorney, said he understood Wednesday's reenactment to be a chance for McIntosh to "tell his perspective" of finding White after he had committed suicide. "The medical examiner apparently didn't find it convincing," he said.
Robinson said his client never left the control booth and did not have a clear vantage point to see anyone entering or exiting White's cell. Hardesty's view was partially obstructed by a support column and a staircase, Robinson said.
Several sources close to the investigation said one of the three officers assigned to White's unit has not provided a full statement to investigators.
Hardesty's lawyer said his client spoke with investigators for more two hours in the weeks after White was found.
Harvey, who confirmed that McIntosh was present Wednesday, declined to elaborate on her claim Thursday that officers found White hanging.
She said again that the medical examiner's finding was wrong and warned that it had unnecessarily created a dangerous situation for corrections officers in the jail; the three working in White's unit were not placed on leave pending the outcome of the investigation.
Arthur Turner, president of the Coalition of Central Prince George's County Community Organizations, warned that a suicide ruling would not pass muster with the public. People "are convinced that a homicide did in fact take place," he said.
"I have not heard anyone say anything about suicide," he said. "The only person who I have heard say anything about suicide was an attorney" for the corrections officers union.