Harford Grand Jury on Jail Death

February 11, 1994

Nearly two years of suspicion and speculation, politicizing and procrastination are finally addressed directly in a Harford County grand jury report last week on the mysterious death of William M. Ford Jr. in a county jail cell in March 1992.

The 19-page report exonerates everyone from allegations of criminal misconduct and willful negligence, concluding that Mr. Ford strangled himself with a pillowcase. Suspicious medical circumstances in the death were explained by expert evidence. The suggestion of homicide raised by a medical examiner was rejected by the jury, which also found no evidence of sexual assault.

The grand jury, which was given the case after the state attorney general's office took over a sluggish local investigation, did criticize various individuals and institutions for their conduct.

It faulted the sheriff's office for improper handling of the death scene and evidence in the immediate aftermath, for failing to promptly refer the case for criminal investigation, and for rendering a quick verdict of suicide without investigation.

The report similarly criticized county officials who jumped to the opposite conclusion, that Mr. Ford's death was homicide, without conclusive evidence. It faulted the county's abrupt $400,000 out-of-court civil settlement with the Ford family without waiting for the conclusion of the investigation.

The grand jury chastised news media for reporting speculation and accusations and rumors.

Certainly the political fallout from the report will be felt in Harford County for some time. The findings will be used in the debate over a November referendum on whether to form a county police force under the county executive's authority or leave law enforcement duties to the sheriff's office.

Sheriff Robert Comes can point to the exculpation of his office by the grand jury, although opponents will underline the report's criticisms of his conclusion of suicide without a full inquiry.

Criticism of County Executive Eileen Rehrmann for approving the $400,000 settlement will be heard, although county lawyers argue that it was a sound pre-emption of potential future liability.

The report may also be cited by officials to avoid public scrutiny of their actions, warning against hasty comments and judgments. That would be a serious mistake. The public should not be denied information while waiting for officials or institutions to act. In this instance, officials could have done more to squelch speculation by responding to it instead of clamming up.

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