A Troubled Legacy From Death In Jail

COMMENT

February 13, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

Everyone's talking about the Harford Grand Jury's report on the mysterious death of inmate William M. Ford Jr. at the county Detention Center in March 1992.

The grand jury concluded that Mr. Ford, who was serving 30 days for drunken driving, killed himself with a pillowcase tied around his neck, a successful suicide or an accidental strangulation from a faked suicide.

The report cleared all parties of criminal wrongdoing, but it found sufficient fault to liberally sow on everyone's fields, while dismissing public criticism of its own deliberations.

The jury took especial umbrage at the impudence of the free press in raising questions and affording a forum for the opinions and evidence of others. Naturally, I don't agree: Anyone who believes he was libeled can go to court, including the Harford state's attorney whose languid investigation led to the intervention of the state attorney general's office.

Had there been more forthright responses to some important questions raised since Mr. Ford's demise, the so-called speculations (officials call theirs "theories") and rumors (officials call theirs "leads") might have earlier been laid to rest. That includes some of the medical journal esoterica the "ordinary folks with common sense" on the grand jury unearthed to explain anomalies raised by other pathologists and physicians. The lack of official response did nothing to squelch rumors; instead, it had the opposite effect of fanning them.

When Dr. Frank J. Peretti, the assistant medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on Mr. Ford, said that the manner of death was "undetermined" and later opined that it was not suicide, that cried out for some response.

When it was later claimed that the grand jury was avoiding Dr. Peretti, what we got from the prosecutor was some mud slinging at the doctor's reputation and charges of "irresponsible libel" against the media.

And when it was finally admitted that Dr. Peretti had not been called to testify in person before the grand jury, we were informed that his $750 fee for one day's work (he is now employed in Arkansas) was "ridiculous;" this the judgment of a Maryland lawyer.

(I wonder how that potential cost compares with the attendant costs to taxpayers of an elected Harford prosecutor shifting to Baltimore County the investigation of a certain case of alleged child abuse at a day care center?)

In the end, authorities explained away the questions of how Mr. Ford's right arm had become wedged between his metal bunk and the solitary holding cell wall, how a tightly knotted pillow case could have maintained deadly pressure on his throat after he lost consciousness, how the thyroid cartilage in his neck was broken by Mr. Ford himself.

The allegations that Mr. Ford had been sexually attacked, possibly by jail guards, were indeed serious and sensitive. The grand jury dealt directly with those assertions and dismissed them. The report named a detention center officer and then

stated unequivocally that he was not in any way responsible for the inmate's death.

The grand jury suggested that swabs containing sperm that were taken from Mr. Ford's body had been switched or mislabeled from the beginning, which had led to confusion and unwarranted speculations. It found that seminal fluids do leak into a man's body after death, and that the only sperm found in his body belonged to the deceased. The report noted that Mr. Ford, a large man who worked as a manual laborer, had no marks on his body to indicate any struggle with alleged attackers in his cell.

Mr. Ford's family, who reached a $400,000 settlement with the county last April to forestall any civil liability in the death, claimed that the inmate had been raped and killed. The lawyer who represented the family called the grand jury's report "a travesty."

Certainly, there are other theories as to how Mr. Ford died than those supported by the grand jury. But there is no strong refutation of the jury's extensive inquiry.

There is, however, at least one troubling conclusion in the grand jury's report. To explain Mr. Ford's attempt at self-strangulation, after one week in the jail, the report concluded that he was a desperate paranoid, whose psychological profile suggested that he might have done anything to escape confinement.

But instead of isolating him, until his last hours of life, or closely watching him for signs of self-destruction, the county jail staff apparently treated him as just another inmate.

Some may find that unsettling with respect to the conduct and judgment of detention center personnel. But there was apparently nothing in Mr. Ford's court records to suggest that a month in jail would torment his personal furies to the point of suicide.

So when did this evident desperate paranoia become so clear? To a grand jury two years after the fact, or to court and detention center personnel two years earlier?

William Ford's death was a tragedy, regardless of the manner and causes. It has pricked the conscience of the county, forced officials to revise practices and procedures, provoked public debate over who should control police and detention center responsibilities and raised questions about the county's premature payment of blood money.

That's a legacy that will affect Harford County for a long time.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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