Questions on Harford Jail Death

February 18, 1994

Any notion that the Harford grand jury's report would finally explain the mysterious death two years ago of William M. Ford in the county detention center has been swiftly dispelled.

The county administration wants to see FBI laboratory tests on blood DNA from the body. So does the lawyer for the family of Mr. Ford, whom the grand jury says committed suicide.

They question the grand jury's finding that the only semen found in the body was that of Mr. Ford, refuting allegations of sexual assault, when the initial lab tests were said to be inconclusive.

The county says this important evidence is needed because it expects to defend future lawsuits. The Ford family is considering possible civil action against individuals. The FBI hasn't decided whether to release the test reports.

The state's chief medical examiner, in an unusual statement, says that his office stands by its report that the manner of Mr. Ford's death in a solitary cell is "undetermined." The grand jury's report does not persuade him to do otherwise, Dr. John E. Smialek suggests. At the same time, he carefully states that the grand jury's conclusions "are reasonable and reflect all of the information provided to them."

But Dr. Smialek also points out mistakes and breaches of procedures that resulted in the "perception of cover-ups that occurred in the Ford investigation." These lapses include the discarding of medical evidence and the belated submission of other physical evidence by the sheriff's office, which also runs the detention center. The quick cleanup of Mr. Ford's cell and his clothing by jail officers also prevented a thorough scene investigation, Dr. Smialek noted.

The chief examiner also faulted the one-day delay in performing the autopsy due to communication problems, and the premature statements by the assistant examiner who did the postmortem regarding the manner of Mr. Ford's death. That assistant examiner, Dr. Frank J. Peretti, still maintains that the inmate did not commit suicide.

The chief examiner calls for tighter, standardized statewide regulations on investigation of jail deaths in Maryland, to avoid the kind of excuses heard in Harford that no rules existed. He also wants local testing of DNA specimens, instead of sending them out of state and waiting many months for results. These proposals make eminent sense, certainly more so than the theories advanced by the grand jury's report.

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