An Absent Father's Atonement

"If I had been there for Ronnie all those years, this wouldn't have happened to him," says Ronnie Harris, jailed during much of his son's life. Ronnie White died while being held in the killing of a police officer.
"If I had been there for Ronnie all those years, this wouldn't have happened to him," says Ronnie Harris, jailed during much of his son's life. Ronnie White died while being held in the killing of a police officer. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ronnie Lionel Harris was playing chess in the day room of the Fairfax County jail when news broke of the Prince George's County police officer killed by an alleged car thief. Hours later, he watched footage of his son, Ronnie L. White, being taken into custody, accused of the crime.

And two days later, he was on the telephone with White's mother, Angie, when she got the call about the 19-year-old's death in his Upper Marlboro cell.

"Ronnie's dead! Ronnie's dead! Ronnie's dead!" she screamed into the receiver.

Since that day in June, Harris has reflected on the circumstances of his son's death, his shortcomings as a father and how his absence during years in prison may have helped seal his son's fate. It pains him that he missed the filled-to-capacity funeral, where a minister admonished mourners for failing to give White a strong moral foundation, a good education, support and guidance.

"I know that if I had been there for Ronnie all those years, this wouldn't have happened to him," Harris, 45, said in his first interview since White's death. "When he was with me, he was positive. He wanted to do things. We had a business together. We had plans. When he was with me, he was protected because I wouldn't have let anything happen to him. He was my son."

Harris has also been poring over details of the crime his son was accused of committing and looking for every tidbit of information about White's death by strangulation in a jail where father and son once served time simultaneously. He's also catching up with White's friends to discover as much as he can about his son's last days.

He holds himself responsible for who his son became, a teenager who had been arrested several times, beginning at age 14. He also holds responsible some of the people who he said are lining up to sue the county, including relatives who did little to raise his son while he was gone.

Last week, Harris met with Prince George's State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D) to ask some questions nagging him: Why didn't police also arrest the man in the car with White when Cpl. Richard S. Findley was killed? Why has no one been held accountable for White's death in a maximum security cell apparently accessible only by prison guards?

"He issued a heartfelt sort of plea to have justice done in both cases," Ivey said. "I thought that for a guy who has had somewhat of a tough life, there was a certain eloquence about the way he expressed himself."

Harris also reached out to a reporter to tell his story. "People aren't asking the right questions, and it is my responsibility to try to clear my son's name," he said.

The story of Harris and White is a familiar one in some neighborhoods. Harris, a high school dropout who had his first tangles with the law as a teenager, and Angie White weren't married. When Ronnie was 2, Harris was arrested for armed robbery.

"You know how I got caught?" he recalled. "I had gone to California because there was an armed robbery charge for me here. But I came back because it was his birthday. I had a party for him, got him some presents. We had a good time."


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