Tightening the Knot at Harford's Jail

May 13, 1993

Harford County Sheriff Robert E. Comes insists that all is well with his department, despite mounting evidence that it badly mishandled the mysterious strangulation death of inmate William Ford at the detention center more than a year ago.

"Procedural errors" may have occurred, he says, but "there has been no . . . evidence of any wrongdoing involving my people." To suggestions that management changes are needed at the county jail, he declared: "I intend to oppose any change."

This obdurate attitude, in light of various questionable judgments by his office in this case, should be a persuasive argument to take the jail out of the elected sheriff's hands and place it under county control. County Executive Eileen Rehrmann is drafting a bill to do that immediately, while naming her procurement chief as acting warden.

She has also named a task force to study the feasibility of shifting law enforcement duties from the sheriff to a county police force. The first of four public hearings on that study is set for 7 tonight at the county office building in Bel Air.

Mr. Ford was found dead in an isolation cell at the center March 1, 1992, a pillow case knotted around his neck. His larynx was broken, an injury experts call inconsistent with suicide. His right arm was tightly wedged between his bolted-down bunk and the cell wall, indicating use of force. Semen was found in his anus, suggesting rape.

The sheriff's office quickly proclaimed it suicide, before the autopsy was complete. Two days later, the sheriff's criminal squad decided to investigate the death. By then, the crime scene had been scrubbed clean, evidence removed, the linens laundered, the incriminating pillowcase was "lost" for a day or two, and the jail guard staffing report was found to be incomplete.

The sheriff bristles at the suggestion of a deliberate cover-up by his office. While no one has accused Mr. Comes personally, the train of events suggests the possibility that guilty parties in the jail may have facilitated such a cover-up.

The fact remains that the sheriff in this case did not promptly investigate a suspicious death as he is supposed to do. State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly, admitting chagrin at the delay, says sheriff's deputies have not cooperated with his investigation.

These are more than procedural errors. Add them to the growing allegations of sexual misconduct by jail guards with inmates under Mr. Comes' tenure and it is becoming clear that the detention center should be swiftly removed from his domain.

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