The Mystery of Cell 102

Friday, September 26, 2008

IT'S BEEN nearly three months since the death of a Prince George's County inmate accused of killing a police officer, and there are still more questions than answers. The final autopsy report, released last week, concluded that inmate Ronnie L. White was strangled. State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, who is investigating the death, has been reluctant to endorse the medical examiner's finding. Mr. Ivey's noncommittal stance has enraged community members. The often hostile relationship between Prince George's law enforcement and county residents, the scandal-plagued past of the county Corrections Center and the suspicious circumstances surrounding Mr. White's death have conspired to create a no-win situation for the county prosecutor. Anything short of a conviction will spark outrage. But, unless there's a breakthrough in the investigation, it's unclear that Mr. Ivey will have enough evidence to pursue an indictment. Though we understand the community's impatience, Mr. Ivey is right to proceed with caution.

Mr. White died June 29 after being found unresponsive in Cell 102 of the maximum-security unit at the jail in Upper Marlboro. The autopsy found that a small bone -- the hyoid -- in Mr. White's neck had been broken. A broken hyoid is usually taken as a sign of strangulation.

The medical examiner concluded that Mr. White was assaulted with a sheet, towel or the "crux of the elbow" and suffered a debilitating blow to his neck. Law enforcement officials had believed that the medical examiner would find the evidence inconclusive, and they were surprised by the finding. Many officials continue to maintain that Mr. White hanged himself, and they emphasize that an autopsy is as much art as science. Medical experts consulted by Post reporters in the summer said it was unlikely but not impossible for Mr. White to have broken the bone by hanging himself. The experts also said that red spots known as petechiae found on Mr. White's face were inconclusive. There were no other visible signs of trauma on Mr. White's body, such as bruising on his neck.

Initially, correctional officers said they found Mr. White slumped down next to his cot less than 48 hours after he arrived at the correctional center. Then there were reports that fibers around Mr. White's neck matched the fabric in the bedsheet in his solitary confinement cell. Now, there are reports that a guard said that he found Mr. White hanging, with a sheet around his neck; the guard said he panicked and removed the sheet. Sources close to the investigation said that Tron S. Johnson, the inmate in the cell adjacent to Mr. White's, heard nothing that would indicate a struggle. They added that about four correctional officers are the focus of the investigation and that one has refused to cooperate and is seeking immunity.

In addition to Mr. Ivey's investigation, the FBI should launch a civil rights probe into the case. The FBI has more investigative and forensics tools at its disposal and may be able to uncover additional evidence. FBI involvement may also help allay community concerns. It's likely the investigators will find that the problems at the correctional facility go beyond the death of Mr. White.

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