By Aaron C. Davis and Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 8, 2009
Investigators concluded early on that only one guard had access to the Prince George's County jail cell where a suspect in a police officer's slaying was fatally injured last year. And they found that the guard, Cpl. Anthony McIntosh, gave conflicting statements and failed an initial polygraph test when asked, "Did you put something around Ronnie White's neck?"
Yet an exhaustive probe that relied on hundreds of interviews, including questioning of every guard and inmate close enough to see or hear White's cell, found no proof that McIntosh harmed the inmate. In fact, after a series of unusual attempts to re-create White's final moments, investigators wrote that it was "possible" that the inmate killed himself.
The inconclusive investigation, described in detail to The Washington Post by law enforcement sources, prompted the county's chief prosecutor to announce last week that, absent new evidence, he would not seek an indictment in the death, which has been ruled a homicide. The decision drew searing criticism from local civil rights leaders and White's relatives, some of whom said they suspected a coverup.
State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey called such criticism offensive, and he said authorities "used every avenue that we could, legally, to further the investigation."
"We have a lot of cases, unfortunately, where the medical examiner rules it a homicide but we don't have enough evidence to prosecute somebody," he said in an interview. "This is obviously extremely high-profile, so the public is seeing with this one in a way they don't see with other cases that aren't prosecuted."
Briefed by a reporter about the investigation's findings, Bobby Henry, an attorney for White's mother, said: "They want to suggest that everything was done. 'We talked to hundreds of people, and all we could come up with is that he may have committed suicide.' Well, that's not good enough."
Ivey said an ongoing probe by the Justice Department, which is reviewing the case at his request, prevented him from explaining his decision more fully.
Timothy Fitts, McIntosh's attorney, said, "Ivey and the police, they were very thorough, so I think it's obvious there was no type of wrongdoing."
A review of the confidential police investigation makes clear that McIntosh was its primary focus for months. The law enforcement sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing, gave this account:
Three days after White's death on June 29, 2008, McIntosh came forward to say that he found the inmate hanging by a rolled-up sheet, panicked and pulled the body down, causing a suicide to be mistaken for a homicide. Later, McIntosh misled investigators about his telephone contacts with another guard in the hours after White died. In addition, McIntosh's answers to questions on his first polygraph test registered as deceptive.
Authorities initially believed that White committed suicide as he contemplated life in prison or even the death penalty for killing Cpl. Richard S. Findley, who was run over by a truck. But that changed a day after White's death, when medical examiners found a broken bone in his neck, suggesting strangulation, and ruled the death a homicide. That day, Maryland State Police took over the probe from Prince George's police at the request of County Executive Jack B. Johnson.
McIntosh revived the suicide theory -- and put himself squarely in the cross hairs -- on July 2 when he volunteered to his union leader and then to jail management that he had discovered the inmate hanging by a bedsheet at 10:15 a.m., 15 minutes before a guard delivering lunch found White unresponsive and slumped on the floor.Guards' Accounts
Investigators devoted considerable resources to examining his claim. For starters, they analyzed a rolled-up bedsheet that police had taken from White's cell. A pattern of parallel wrinkles suggested that the sheet had been tightly wound from one corner. It could have been used as a tourniquet to strangle, as the medical examiner suggested, or it could have been a noose.
Investigators found six holes, one inch in diameter, in the top bunk in White's cell and tested whether a sheet could be threaded through one of the holes and tied to make a noose. It could, and the wrinkle pattern that resulted was a match.
State police also did a test with an officer the same height as the 5-foot-11 White, carefully suspending him from the cell's top bunk, just shy of five feet high. They decided asphyxiation was possible if White stretched out his legs on the floor in front of him, leaving his body weight supported only by his neck.
At the same time, investigators pursued possible suspects in what was officially a homicide. They constructed an elaborate timeline and whittled down the list of guards with access to White in a critical 45-minute window before he was found unresponsive: McIntosh, Cpl. Ramon Davis, who was working on the cellblock, and Cpl. Russell Hardesty, who was in a control booth monitoring the area.
Detectives began dissecting their lives. They interviewed the three guards' co-workers and family members and tracked their phone calls. They also interviewed every inmate who was in hearing distance, had a sightline or was in contact with White before he died.
The inmates said they had neither seen nor heard anything unusual. Prosecutors offered to make a deal with Tron Johnson, who was charged with three counts of murder and was housed next to White. He said he had no information.
Investigators gathered dozens of accounts, but they lacked the three most important: those of McIntosh, Davis and Hardesty.
Ivey decided he needed to hear their stories, and he negotiated terms with their attorneys within a month. Under the agreements, known as proffers, the guards were given limited immunity to tell their version of the events surrounding White's death.
Prosecutors agreed not to use their statements to try to obtain indictments. However, if the guards went to trial, prosecutors could use the statements to impeach any of the guards' testimony that was at odds with what they said during the proffer sessions. Attorneys sometimes call such arrangements "queen for a day."
"The other option was to try to let them take the Fifth [Amendment] and put together a case without them," Ivey said, referring to the right against self-incrimination. "I think you had to try to get to the bottom of what was going on. I think it was the right choice, and the [Department of Justice] signed off on those, too."
Davis and Hardesty each participated in at least one proffer meeting. Partly with information gleaned from those interviews, detectives determined that Davis was with other officers on a meal break in the cafeteria when White was fatally injured. Hardesty never left his control booth to enter White's cellblock, investigators concluded.Undergoing Polygraphs
McIntosh's proffer sessions were not so simple. He was "queen for a day" at least six times. He contradicted himself and could not recall critical details, including how the rolled-up sheet had been attached to the bed. In one session, McIntosh said White's "feet were dangling off the ground." But as investigators already knew, White was a foot taller than the bed.
On Sept. 17, to clarify his account, McIntosh returned to the cell with his attorney, prosecutors, investigators and a state medical examiner. For three hours, McIntosh tried to explain how he found White hanging. Again and again, he could not replicate how he said he had pulled White down in one motion, and he could not be sure where on the top bunk the sheet had been affixed.
J. Laron Locke, the assistant state medical examiner who ruled White's death a homicide, left unconvinced. The next day, he issued his final autopsy report, finding that White was probably strangled with a sheet, towel or "crux of the elbow."
At this point, McIntosh was the main focus of the probe. Yet he continued cooperating and declaring his innocence.
Fitts said that as McIntosh's attorney, he typically would not have recommended that his client cooperate to the extent that he did. But he said he thought it would ultimately benefit McIntosh if investigators fully understood his account.
"It was a pretty long investigation, but I told him to keep going, keep talking," Fitts said after Ivey announced that he did not intend to seek an indictment. He could not be reached to comment yesterday.
On Sept. 23, McIntosh underwent the first of two polygraphs, the results of which only heightened suspicion. Testers found that McIntosh answered deceptively to a series of six questions in which he denied applying pressure to White's neck and said he was not lying about finding White hanging. A second polygraph months later indicated that McIntosh was telling the truth when he said he did not intentionally injure White or engage in a physical altercation with him.
Although polygraph results are not admissible in Maryland state courts, and many experts regard such tests as unreliable, prosecutors began presenting other evidence to a grand jury. On Nov. 25, the grand jury disbanded without issuing any indictments in White's death.Suspect's Profile
Detectives redoubled their efforts, probing McIntosh's personal life and psychological profile. Assessing his story was central to determining how White died.
Detectives interviewed McIntosh's two former wives, supervisors and co-workers. Fellow guards and jail supervisors portrayed him as an unlikely killer. They said they did not consider McIntosh, 5-foot-9 and 220 pounds, physically or mentally capable of killing a younger, fitter inmate. Supervisors described him as "soft for a corrections officer" and a "dough boy."
McIntosh told investigators that a previous blunder on the job played into his decision not to call for help when he saw White hanging. In January 2008, six months before White died, McIntosh said, he left a gun in the bathroom of a hospital where he was guarding an inmate.
"I figured I'd be in trouble again," he told investigators. "You know, I'd have to go through the administrative process again. And that's basically what happened."
Investigators also looked for evidence that White might have been depressed or even suicidal.
When he was admitted to the jail less than 48 hours before his death, White told a jail nurse he was taking the prescription drug Elavil for depression. Investigators could not corroborate that claim. White's family did not respond to queries about his medical history.
Some of White's last known words offered conflicting impressions. About six hours after he was arrested, White told an officer, "Everyone is mad at me. Everyone is upset about the cop."
Yet at the jail, when he was being taunted by other inmates that he would "fry" for killing an officer, White yelled out a series of expletives, saying "Yeah, I'd do it again."
One of the last people to see him alive, Sacoyrius Joseph, an inmate who brought White his breakfast shortly after 4 a.m., told investigators that White seemed melancholy. Joseph, who said he knew White from a previous stint in jail, asked the young man what he was in for.
"I caught a body . . . [a] police officer," White responded.
Joseph said White seemed upset. He said he told White to keep his head up, assured him he would take care of him and said he would see him the next day.