No Sign of Trauma Is Found After Inmate Dies

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009

A 33-year-old inmate at the Prince George's County jail died early yesterday after his cellmate found him unresponsive in his bed, authorities said.

County police said in a news release that there was no evidence of trauma or foul play. The cause of the inmate's death was listed yesterday as pending, meaning a physical examination of the body at the state medical examiner's office was inconclusive.

Jail officials know of no preexisting condition that might explain the death of Charles R. Cooper, a Cheverly resident who was scheduled to be tried yesterday on attempted-murder and other charges, said Michon Parker, a spokeswoman for the county Department of Corrections.

The jail in Upper Marlboro has come under scrutiny since the death in June of a 19-year-old inmate who was accused of killing a police officer. The medical examiner found that Ronnie L. White was asphyxiated and ruled the death a homicide. No one has been charged.

Cooper's cellmate tried to wake him for breakfast about 3:30 a.m., Parker said. Unable to rouse Cooper, the cellmate called for help. Efforts by jail officials and paramedics to revive him were unsuccessful. Cooper was pronounced dead at Prince George's Hospital Center shortly after 5 a.m.

Cooper's medical history is part of the police investigation into his death.

The cellmate reported hearing Cooper make a "gurgling" sound during the night, said a jail employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he has not been authorized to grant interviews.

According to charging documents, Cooper broke into an apartment in Greenbelt in August, threatened the occupants with a handgun and demanded money and drugs. One of the occupants took the handgun from Cooper, but Cooper regained control of the gun and fired into the victim's abdomen, the documents allege.

In addition to attempted murder, the charges against Cooper included first-degree assault and robbery with a deadly weapon.

According to Circuit Court records, prosecutors were prepared to use DNA evidence against Cooper.

Robert McGowan, Cooper's attorney, said he met with Cooper at the jail Monday to discuss a plea offer that would have required him to plead guilty to attempted murder and a handgun violation in exchange for a sentence of 50 years. Cooper said nothing about feeling despondent and was considering the offer, McGowan said.

"He just said, 'Okay, if this is what it is, this is what it is,'" said McGowan, an assistant public defender.

In jail, Cooper was taking classes toward a high school diploma, authorities said. Efforts to locate Cooper's relatives yesterday were unsuccessful.

Sixteen inmates have died in custody at the jail in recent years, nearly half in homicides and suicides, The Washington Post reported in August. The jail reported nine deaths from 2000 through 2005. Most of Maryland's jails reported few or no deaths during that period, The Post reported.

The Prince George's jail has 1,500 inmates, most awaiting trial or serving short sentences.

Staff writer Aaron C. Davis and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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