3 doctors rule out suicide in jail death Harford officials settle with family

April 27, 1993|By Bruce Reid and Mike Farabaugh | Bruce Reid and Mike Farabaugh,Staff Writers

An article in yesterday's editions on the death of an inmate at the Harford County Detention Center should have said that the cause of William M. Ford's death was initially reported by jail officials as suicide by strangulation.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

A Delaware man whose family alleges that he was raped and murdered last year in the Harford County Detention Center probably did not commit suicide as jail officials originally reported, according to three pathologists who reviewed the autopsy report.

The autopsy performed on William M. Ford, 28, of Wilmington, indicates he died of strangulation and suffered a fractured larynx -- an injury all three pathologists said is almost never self-inflicted.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The autopsy also found evidence suggesting that Mr. Ford was sexually molested, and the report says that before his death he was transferred from a dormitory to a cell where he was alone "because he feared he was going to be gang-raped."

The lingering questions about Mr. Ford's death more than a year ago have received renewed attention in recent weeks because his family had threatened to file a lawsuit alleging that he was raped and murdered in the jail.

That threat led the administration of Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann to reach a $400,000 settlement with the family that was announced yesterday.

Mr. Ford, a laborer, was sentenced Feb. 24, 1992, to 30 days in the Harford County jail for driving while intoxicated. His conviction stemmed from a December 1991 incident in which he was pulled over on Interstate 95 near Havre de Grace.

On March 1 of that year he was found lying face down on a bed his cell with a "ligature" -- in this instance a pillowcase -- "twisted and knotted" around his neck, according to the autopsy report prepared by the state medical examiner's office in Baltimore.

Two days after his death, the county Sheriff's Department issued a statement saying his death was a suicide by hanging.

But the autopsy report, which was never released by authorities but was obtained by The Sun from the family, says the manner of death was "undetermined."

Three pathologists who discussed the autopsy at the request of The Sun all agreed that it was unlikely that Mr. Ford had committed suicide.

Dr. Ali Z. Hameli, a pathologist who is chief medical examiner for the state of Delaware, said it was "highly improbable" that someone could fracture his own larynx in the manner in which Mr. Ford died.

Dr. Michael M. Baden, director of forensic sciences for the New York State Police, said such a fracture is "most usually associated with manual strangulation," or strangulation accomplished by someone's hands.

The third doctor, a pathologist in the region who asked not to be identified, also said it would be "highly unlikely" for Mr. Ford's neck injury to be self-inflicted.

In a small number of cases, a fracture of the larynx can occur with a ligature strangulation, Dr. Baden said. "Most of the time, if a person tries to strangle himself with a ligature, you pass out and you have to let go," he said.

Dr. John E. Smialek, chief medical examiner for Maryland, signed Mr. Ford's autopsy report. Asked about the fracture of Mr. Ford's larynx, he said: "It is certainly unusual for someone to do it himself."

Dr. Smialek, who said he has performed several thousand autopsies himself, said he had never seen a fracture of the larynx that was self-inflicted. Still, the autopsy report for Mr. Ford listed the death as neither suicide nor homicide -- but "undetermined."

Dr. Smialek said the cause was listed as undetermined because it was "not possible" with the information available to make an exact determination.

Dr. Frank J. Peretti, who performed the autopsy on Mr. Ford, is now working for the Arkansas state medical examiner's office in Little Rock. Reached there yesterday, Dr. Peretti said he could not comment on the Ford case because he expected to be called as a witness in a future trial.

William F. Gately of Towson, the attorney for the Ford family, said if Mr. Ford committed suicide, he would have had to strangle himself with one arm. He said Mr. Ford was found with his right arm tightly wedged between the cell wall and his bed, which was bolted to the floor.

Mr. Gately said that it took more than one jail employee to remove Mr. Ford's arm. The extraction resulted in a cut to his forearm, he said. Such a cut was noted in the autopsy report.

Mr. Gately said Mr. Ford was moved into a locked cell by himself the day of his death because he feared that he was about to be raped and killed -- fears he expressed to his family just before his death.

In an interview last week, Lisa Ford, sister of the victim, said she talked by telephone with her brother shortly before his death and he had expressed fears for his safety.

"He said he was going to be raped and murdered," she said.

The autopsy report said semen was found in Mr. Ford's anus.

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