'A Camera Malfunction'?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

THE CONVOLUTED explanations given by the correctional officers in charge of a Prince George's County inmate who died in June have taken another turn toward the implausible. The officers who rushed into the cell of 19-year-old inmate Ronnie L. White were required to record their actions with a hand-held video camera. But, according to confidential reports obtained by The Post, the camera did not record the officers as they entered the cell or in the minutes that followed. Only after Mr. White was removed on a stretcher did the camera start rolling. Guards say there was a camera "malfunction." We're skeptical, as are public safety experts we consulted.

In the 4 1/2 months since Mr. White's death, the correctional officers have repeatedly undermined their assertions of innocence. First some of the guards refused to cooperate with investigators. Then they gave incomplete accounts of how they found Mr. White. Now they offer a too-convenient story about an inoperative camera. It's time for the officers to stop their defensive maneuvering and tell investigators the full truth.

The Post's Aaron C. Davis and Ruben Castaneda reported that the correctional officers used similar language when explaining the camera's failure to record, a sign the officers may have coordinated their responses. "This incident was partially videotaped due to malfunction," one guard wrote, in a statement given to internal investigators. "This incident was partially recorded due to a camera malfunction," wrote another. Mr. White died in the jail in Upper Marlboro on June 29, two days after he allegedly killed a police officer. The autopsy report concluded that Mr. White was strangled; law enforcement officials maintain that he committed suicide. There have been conflicting reports about whether guards found a sheet in Mr. White's cell. The correctional center where Mr. White died also has a reputation for officer misconduct. An officer was accused of supplying cellphones to inmates earlier this year, for example.

State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, who is leading the investigation, has been accused of moving slowly. He's right to proceed with caution, even if doing so means having to convene a new grand jury. But he should use every investigative tool at his disposal to break down the guards' apparent stonewalling and determine once and for all how Mr. White died.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company