Mishandling evidence

December 20, 2007

Colleagues of slain Maryland Correctional Officer David W. McGuinn have done his memory a disservice.

In trying to explain away the beating of an inmate, they may have seriously compromised an investigation into the officer's murder. Add to that the slipshod handling of a piece of evidence, and the prosecution's job of convicting his accused killers becomes exceedingly harder. That's no formula for justice.

The aftermath of Officer McGuinn's July 25, 2006 death at the House of Correction in Jessup was a chaotic and dangerous affair, as reported by The Sun's Greg Garland. That's not hard to imagine. This prison earned its notorious reputation because of its age and deplorable condition and because of the caliber of prisoner housed there. The O'Malley administration swiftly shut it down upon taking office, but it should have been closed years ago.

Conditions there clearly put Officer McGuinn and other staff at risk - narrow, dark corridors, an unacceptable amount of contraband. But it was a series of unfortunate events after the officer's murder, as reported by Mr. Garland, that raise concerns now and could benefit the defense of the two inmates indicted in Officer McGuinn's murder. They begin with a Maryland State Police investigator who accidentally kicked a suspect knife off a prison tier and into a locked utility tunnel. The knife was later found and photographed as evidence, but it wasn't immediately removed and secured, according to written accounts of investigators.

The mistake was then compounded when the homemade knife went missing after its recovery and then mysteriously reappeared, reportedly taken off an inmate who allegedly resisted a strip search by correctional officers and was beaten. The prisoner denied having the knife - and passed a lie detector test - and the five officers were charged with assault.

Something is genuinely amiss here. A state police investigator concedes the officers' story doesn't add up, investigators can't identify the missing knife as the murder weapon, and Anne Arundel County prosecutors are left to account for a confusing set of circumstances in a death penalty case.

This may be one case, and a horrible one at that. But it reinforces concerns about collusion and corruption within the prison system. The investigation of the murder of a corrections officer killed in the line of duty should be helped by fellow officers, not hampered. Anything less is an affront to Officer McGuinn and his family.

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