Harford County inmate killed himself, grand jury says, exonerating jail staff

February 05, 1994|By Bruce Reid and Mike Farabaugh | Bruce Reid and Mike Farabaugh,Sun Staff Writers

Harford County inmate William F. Ford killed himself and was not sexually assaulted and killed by a jail guard, a grand jury investigating the case concluded in a report released yesterday.

The findings contradict the conclusion of an autopsy that the inmate's fractured larynx could not have been self-inflicted.

In its 19-page report, the grand jury said it "believes that Mr. Ford either deliberately strangled himself with [a] pillowcase or accidentally killed himself while faking a suicide attempt in a desperate effort to get out of jail."

Carolyn Henneman, an assistant attorney general who directed the grand jury investigation, said, "This office is sensitive to the fact that this was a terrible tragedy for the family. But we are confident that justice has been done."

Mr. Ford, a 28-year-old laborer from Wilmington, Del., died in an isolation cell March 1, 1992.

He was serving a 30-day sentence for drunken driving. He had told his family the day of his death that he feared being raped and killed in the jail.

Detention Center officials originally ruled the death a suicide, but the case has received intense scrutiny since April 1993, when the family alleged that Mr. Ford had been killed by guards.

A lawyer for the family criticized the jury's conclusions.

The 23-member grand jury, which investigated the case for eight months, said, "Rather than hurt Mr. Ford, the correctional officers engaged in valiant efforts to save him."

A central issue has been the conclusion of Dr. Frank J. Peretti, a former assistant state medical examiner who'd performed the autopsy on Mr. Ford, that the fractured larynx could not have been self-inflicted.

That conclusion was supported by several well-known pathologists contacted by The Sun, who said it was unlikely that the neck injury was self-inflicted.

However, the grand jury in its report said, "It was demonstrated and backed up by expert testimony and medical literature that self-strangulations are possible and do occur."

The grand jury also said they reviewed a medical journal article that a person can fracture his own larynx during self-strangulation.

In telephone interview yesterday, Dr. Peretti said, "I respect the grand jury's decision. But it's still my opinion that Mr. Ford's death was neither suicidal nor accidental. Cases of self-strangulation . . . are the exception, not the rule."

Dr. Peretti is now an associate state medical examiner in Arkansas.

The jury report also said that DNA tests conducted by the FBI proved that semen discovered in Mr. Ford's rectum was found "to belong to Mr. Ford and only Mr. Ford."

The panel concluded that Mr. Ford may have masturbated just before his death or that the semen "leaked" to the area of his rectum at the time of death.

The conclusions met with immediate criticism from the Ford family's attorney.

"This thing smells to high heaven," said William F. Gately Jr., the Towson lawyer. "To anyone who knows the facts of this case, this report is a travesty.

"They are putting a murderer back in that jail," Mr. Gately said, referring to a guard who was a principal suspect.

Mr. Gately complained that the grand jury did not hear from all witnesses it should have, including a former jail guard who reported that there was no pillowcase in Mr. Ford's cell minutes before Detention Center officials said he strangled himself.

The grand jury report "suggests that there is significant medical evidence to say that [the injury] was self-inflicted," Mr. Gately said. "Not a single pathologist gave testimony to that effect."

But Ms. Henneman responded, "Nothing was kept from the grand jury."

In April 1993, the administration of County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann paid the family $400,000 to settle a threatened civil rights lawsuit.

Mrs. Rehrmann was in Annapolis yesterday and was not available for comment.

Jeffrey D. Wilson, County Council president, said yesterday, "The Rehrmann administration clearly acted precipitously."

He said he plans to prepare legislation requiring similar settlement agreements to be approved either by the county Board of Estimates or the County Council.

County Attorney Ernest A. Crofoot, said, "I've maintained all along that the county's settlement with the Ford family . . . was very favorable to the county.

"The county saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation costs by settling out of court. . . . That's all I am prepared to say and all I am going to say."

In a short, prepared statement, Harford Sheriff Robert E. Comes said the grand jury's findings "are consistent with the initial findings of the Detention Center. . . . It has been my position all along that there has been no wrongdoing by any Sheriff's Office employee."

The jail's warden was forced to retire after the death, because evidence relative to the death, including Mr. Ford's clothing, had been washed or destroyed before criminal investigators started on the case.

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