Willing to reserve judgment

Prince George's waits as FBI probes inmate's death

July 02, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz and Gus G. Sentementes | Julie Bykowicz and Gus G. Sentementes,Sun reporters

UPPER MARLBORO - The Prince George's county seat was both a memorial and a crime scene yesterday. Thin black fabric was draped from the courthouse as state and federal authorities walked through the nearby jail, trying to determine how the man accused of killing Cpl. Richard S. Findley, a county police officer, ended up dead in his jail cell this weekend.

A day after the state medical examiner ruled inmate Ronnie L. White's death a homicide by asphyxiation and strangulation, civil rights and political leaders said they were reserving judgment while the Maryland State Police and the FBI investigate.

No one at the Prince George's County Correctional Center had been suspended by last night, though county officials said seven correctional officers and their supervisors had access to White's high-security isolation cell.

Vicki D. Duncan, a spokeswoman for the county department of correction, said, "The investigators don't want us to mess up anything. We're waiting to find out what they tell us so we know where to go from there."

Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said he will present evidence to a grand jury as quickly as possible, and several law enforcement sources not authorized to speak to the media predicted swift indictments.

"At least it's going to be done independently," said June White Dillard, president of the Prince George's County branch of the NAACP. "This investigation needs to be thorough and complete and public as soon as possible. We need to find out who did this. Then we'll see what the fallout is."

That wait-and-see approach is a marked shift from the past, when similar high-profile incidents served as an immediate rallying cry for reform in a majority-black county that has long struggled with relations between its citizens and its law enforcement officers.

In the 1960s, the county was known for its "death squads," groups of police officers accused of trampling suspects' civil rights. In 1989, the death of a Ghanaian man during an encounter with police rekindled distrust.

More recently, in 2000, a county police officer tailed a Howard University student, whom he mistakenly thought to be a criminal, to Northern Virginia, where he fatally shot the young man.

About that same time, another officer was charged with manslaughter in a teenager's death at a fire hall dance, and two other officers were indicted for their roles in a police dog attack.

But Dillard and others noted a drop in recent years of citizen complaints about police brutality. Instead, she said, almost everyone in the county is focused on "the rising gang influence in a county with too much crime already."

Findley was part of a special assignment team when he and two other officers in Laurel tried to stop a Ford pickup truck with stolen tags Friday night. According to charging documents, the pickup truck's driver "intentionally accelerated toward Cpl. Findley and ran him over."

Findley, 39, was a 10-year police veteran and a longtime volunteer firefighter in Beltsville. The Carroll County resident is to be buried tomorrow. The viewing is today. Both are in Beltsville and are closed to the public, a spokesman for the Prince George's County Police Department said.

Another officer at the scene when Findley was struck identified White, 19, of Laurel, as the driver. By Saturday morning, White was charged with first-degree murder.

He was arrested and taken to the Prince George's County Correctional Center, a squat, brown facility with about 450 sworn correctional officers and 1,300 inmates.

A day later, he was dead, found unresponsive on his cell floor when an officer entered about 10:30 Sunday morning.

Monday night, County Executive Jack B. Johnson announced the medical examiner's ruling, which also noted that White had two broken rib bones. Johnson condemned "vigilante justice" as a threat to society.

"The county executive is very angry at this situation, and that is why he has called for the Maryland State Police and the FBI to investigate this incident thoroughly with an open, transparent process," said his spokesman, John Erzen.

Yesterday, Bobby G. Henry Jr., an attorney representing the inmate's family, said his clients are "absolutely outraged and extremely saddened that their loved one could be killed in such a cold and callous manner while in the custody of law enforcement officials."

The case and the community's reaction have drawn national attention - Henry's comments were carried live on CNN yesterday and the Maryland U.S. attorney's office has consulted the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.

But White's death is not the first sign of trouble at the county detention center in recent months.

Several correctional officers were found smuggling cell phones to inmates in March. Then last month, four 9 mm Berettas turned up missing from the jail armory. Ramon Korionoff, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office, said the missing guns incident is still under internal investigation but prosecutors are monitoring it.

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