Pr. George's Jail Guards Are Mum in Death Probe

Prince George's County officials and an attorney for the family of Ronnie L. White call for a thorough investigation into the 19-year old's death while in police custody. Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post Editor: Francine Uenuma/
By Aaron C. Davis and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Several Prince George's County correctional officers who had access to a 19-year-old inmate found strangled in solitary confinement Sunday have initially declined to speak to investigators of the slaying, a source familiar with the interrogations said.

The Maryland State Police and federal agents were investigating the death of Ronnie L. White, who was killed less than 36 hours after he was booked into the county correctional center on first-degree murder charges in the hit-and-run death Friday of county police Cpl. Richard S. Findley.

It wasn't clear why the correctional officers reportedly declined to answer questions. Sgt. Curtis Knowles, president of the county's correctional officers union, said the union's position is that its members can be interviewed only during work hours and with a union representative or attorney present, unless a criminal investigation is underway.

However, a state police spokesman said the agency considers its efforts a "criminal investigation."

County police expressed frustration yesterday that the controversy over White's death seemed to be overshadowing the death of Findley, whose funeral is scheduled for tomorrow.

"We all understand that the death of this kid is tragic. However, his actions that led to him being in that predicament don't even begin to rise to the level of the sacrifice that Findley made," said Vince Canales, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 89. "Everybody needs to take a minute and focus solely on putting him to rest. We'll get back to the investigation when we have properly buried Corporal Findley."

Sources close to the investigation, who like others in this report spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing, said county police collected most of the forensic evidence from White's cell Sunday, before state police took over the investigation at the request of county officials. An attorney for White's family called on the Justice Department, which has launched a civil rights probe, to be a partner in the criminal investigation.

"This did not happen on some dark, abandoned, lonely road," Bobby G. Henry Jr., the family's attorney, said at a news conference. "This happened in broad daylight, in the custody of county officials. Everyone who has someone or knows someone who is in the county correctional facility should have a problem with that."

Late in the day, Rod J. Rosenstein, U.S. attorney for Maryland, issued a statement saying his office supports State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey of Prince George's, who intends to retain lead responsibility for the criminal investigation. Ivey said he would take the findings of the investigation to a grand jury.

The news that White was slain has drawn condemnations from civil rights activists and others, including County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D). Johnson said late Monday that seven guards and an undisclosed number of supervisors had access to White, a Howard County resident. He said police are not suspected in his death.

Late Monday, detectives and agents appeared at the home of one of the correctional officers, and they visited the homes of additional guards yesterday, officials said. About two dozen investigators were at the jail Monday night, and many returned yesterday to continue their work.

Knowles said officers would probably have had to swipe a computerized ID card to enter the unit that housed White's cell. A log of which cards were swiped, and when, to enter the area should be available, he said.

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