Travesty of justice

Our view : Death of Prince George's inmate must be solved quickly

July 03, 2008

At this point, the only thing certain about the homicide death Sunday of Ronnie L. White in a Prince George's County detention facility is that it never should have happened, and the fact that it was allowed to happen is an outrage and a disgrace.

Mr. White, 19, was a suspect in the killing of Prince George's County police Cpl. Richard S. Findley on Friday, when he allegedly struck the officer while driving a pickup truck with stolen tags that the officer and his partner had staked out on a special assignment targeting carjackers. The truck dragged the officer along the ground, inflicting massive head injuries from which he later died.

Police arrested Mr. White that evening and brought him to the Prince George's County Correctional Center, where he was put in a maximum security cell. On Sunday morning, a guard saw Mr. White slumped motionless in his cell with no pulse. He was taken to Prince George's County Hospital Center, where he was pronounced dead. On Monday, the state medical examiner's office ruled the death a homicide caused by strangulation and asphyxiation.

This incident raises so many red flags it's hard to know where to start pointing out the system's failures. As a suspect in the murder of a police officer, Mr. White was a high-profile prisoner who never should have been at the PG detention center; protocol dictated he be held at another county's jail. Though Mr. White was in solitary confinement, there were no surveillance cameras recording activity in his cell or the comings and goings of guards with access to it. Officials initially claimed that there were no signs of trauma on Mr. White's body and that he could have been a suicide. But later they said seven guards and an undisclosed number of supervisors had access to Mr. White's cell.

The county turned the investigation over to the Maryland State Police and FBI to avoid a conflict of interest. But county police had already been on the crime scene, leaving open the question of evidence tampering. County Executive Jack B. Johnson deplored what he called "vigilante" justice, and the county state's attorney pledged swift indictments. That is essential.

Heinous as Mr. White's alleged crime was, the bizarre circumstances of his death threaten to fatally undermine public confidence in the justice system and completely overshadow a brave officer's tragic death in the line of duty.

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