Blood money and foot-dragging

April 30, 1993

William M. Ford died a horrible death in the Harford County Detention Center a year ago March 1, raped and fatally strangled with a pillowcase in his cell. The investigations have dragged on, authorities still won't even call it murder and they have no chargeable suspects.

The lawyer for the dead man's family, William F. Gately, had no such problem. The autopsy report he obtained showed firm evidence of rape and of injuries that are inconsistent with suicide. He prepared a civil lawsuit against the county, accusing jail guards of sexual assault and murder.

Harford County this week paid $400,000 in blood money to settle the case and prevent further public disclosures. That provoked cries from some Harford politicians that control of the jail should be shifted from the sheriff to the county and that a county police force should be created to replace the sheriff, who is an elected state official.

The matter has not, however, prompted enough concern from political figures about the egregious delay in official inquiries into Mr. Ford's death. County and FBI investigators say they are still waiting for lab results 14 months after the death. The sheriff's office, which immediately pronounced it suicide, hasn't moved beyond that judgment.

Mr. Ford was serving a 30-day sentence for drunken driving. He had been moved to a solitary cell near a staffed check-in desk, after expressing fear he would be raped and killed. He was not a jail house troublemaker, and spent only seven days at the jail before the tragedy.

The week's delay in the sheriff's investigation of the death allowed important evidence from the crime scene to be removed and erased. A grand jury has since told the sheriff to investigate any inmate death automatically and promptly. The long-standing problem of mixing violent and non-violent offenders at the facility continues.

Outrage that should be focused on resolving the circumstances of this highly suspicious, brutal death in public custody is instead directed at the payout of county funds and on political control structure. It's time for the truth to come out in the Ford case, not for more protracted political debate.

The state attorney general has entered the case, investigating management problems at the detention center. We hope that will lead to prompt resolution of the case, without regard for political responsibility and potential lawsuits.

The jail should be brought under direct county control. Harford pays the bills and assumes legal liability; the long-pondered idea of a county police force must be reconsidered. A new acting warden, named by the county executive, is in place and changes should occur. But the priority is to resolve Mr. Ford's mysterious death, identify the perpetrators and make sure it never happens again.

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