Nearly five years after a 19-year-old accused of killing a police officer was asphyxiated in a Prince George’s County jail cell, a federal judge said it remains unclear whether Ronnie White was slain or took his own life.

U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr.’s comments came as he sentenced former county corrections officer Anthony McIntosh — the only person expected to be charged in connection with White’s death — to two years in prison.

McIntosh, 49, was never charged with murder or manslaughter but was convicted of obstruction of justice for changing his story after White’s June 2008 death was ruled a homicide. McIntosh initially said White appeared healthy when he last saw the inmate, but he later said he panicked and tried to cover up an apparent suicide to avoid getting in trouble.

“I often think of how I should have done things differently,” McIntosh said in federal court in Greenbelt on Monday, addressing White’s death publicly in court for the first time. “I should have been honest . . . no excuses.”

But in a county with a long history of corruption, McIntosh’s “awful lie,” as Williams put it, did broader damage, furthering a perception that there is cause for residents to be distrustful of authorities.

“Law enforcement officers and correctional officers are the glue that holds society together,” said Williams, the county’s former chief prosecutor. “What has happened here is this lie . . . has inflamed and fueled the skepticism of the public that something fishy took place.”

White’s family members used the forum to go further, saying they still believe White’s death was vigilante justice.

White’s mother and stepfather said in court that they do not accept the explanation that White committed suicide. Lonnie Gray, White’s stepfather, said he thinks county police killed White. He called McIntosh a “scapegoat” in a larger conspiracy.

Williams said he could not blame Gray for the accusation.

“The father, the family, is expressing the view that is out there that something occurred that has never been resolved,” Williams said, adding that he, himself, is not sure. “No one clearly knows whether the death was a suicide or a homicide.”

Two days before his death, White was arrested for allegedly running down Prince George’s Cpl. Richard S. Findlay. Findlay had been waiting to arrest White when he got into a stolen truck, authorities said at the time. But White charged at Findlay with the vehicle, pinning him on the hood and slamming him repeatedly into a metal fence, police said.

While awaiting a court hearing, White was found unresponsive in prison on the morning of June 29, 2008.

McIntosh quickly became a focus of the investigation. He had been the only guard in the maximum security block for a period before White was found. He initially told detectives that he had observed White alive and well, sitting on his bunk 15 minutes before his body was discovered.

Three days later, however, after medical examiners found a fracture in a hard-to-break bone in White’s neck, 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. McIntosh also failed an initial polygraph test when asked, “Did you put something around Ronnie White’s neck?” His answer was interpreted as being deceptive.

After a yearlong investigation, and two more polygraphs that McIntosh passed, Maryland State Police concluded that it was possible that White had committed suicide.

Although White was nearly a foot taller than the top bunk, investigators decided asphyxiation was possible. In the most likely scenario, White would have had to have jumped off a piece of furniture with enough force to break the bone in his neck and then fall with his legs stretched out in front of him to leave his body weight supported only by his neck.

Forrest Christian, a Justice Department lawyer handling the case, said that, however it happened, the fact that McIntosh moved White’s body and left it for another guard to find amounted to a coverup. “The charge is obstruction of justice, but in plain English, it is a coverup.”

Christian noted in court that in exchange for McIntosh’s guilty plea to obstruction, Justice agreed not to prosecute McIntosh on charges he violated White’s civil rights by failing to call for medical aid.

Deborah L. Boardman, McIntosh’s federal defender, argued that he had lost his job and his savings, was no danger to society and should be placed on home arrest for a year, a significantly shorter sentence than recommended under federal sentencing guidelines.

“There was no murder . . . no coverup, no vigilante justice,” Boardman said. “He made a mistake.”

In making his ruling, Williams pointed to scandals in Maryland’s prison system and beyond, an apparent nod to a federal indictment in April accusing 13 guards of aiding a violent prison gang in Baltimore.

Williams said corrections scandals often involve the “lawlessness” of guards.

“The sentence in this case has to send a message that people are just not going to tolerate cruel behavior by those in law enforcement.”