Our view: Prince George's officials need to speed sorting out the facts of inmate's death
September 24, 2008
Vigilantism is an ugly word, but unfortunately it's a suspicion that's been on the table in the death of Ronnie L. White since shortly after his arrest in connection with the traffic death of a Prince George's County police officer.
Now there are reports that two Prince George's corrections officers have been placed on administrative leave after county officials learned they were the focus of a state police and FBI probe into Mr. White's death.
State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey has had to show the county won't tolerate police and corrections officers who take the law into their own hands. But he must also make very clear that leaks, rumors and speculation are no substitute for hard evidence.
Mr. White was found slumped in his cell without a pulse June 29, less than 48 hours after being arrested on suspicion of fatally injuring Cpl. Richard S. Findley with a stolen truck during a botched carjacking. Last week, the county medical examiner ruled Mr. White's death a homicide by strangulation. Only a handful of guards had access to the area; it appears some of them have given conflicting statements to investigators.
Mr. Ivey has been criticized by Mr. White's family and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for not endorsing the medical examiner's final report. However, a spokesman for Mr. Ivey said the report's findings are just one element of a complex investigation, and that investigators have not ruled out suicide as a possible cause of death. The suggestion that Mr. White may have killed himself in custody is a recent twist that has puzzled local residents and infuriated Mr. White's family and their attorney, who charge the county is trying to cover up Mr. White's murder.
Prince George's County police have long had a troubled relationship with the community, and the White case has only exacerbated distrust of the criminal justice system. Officials need to get to the bottom of Mr. White's death quickly in order to restore public confidence. Mr. Ivey has convened a grand jury to consider all the evidence, and ultimately it will be up to those jurors to judge whether Ronnie White killed himself or was murdered in his cell. It's likely no one will be completely satisfied with whatever finding the grand jury reaches, but officials need to confront the explosive issues of this case head-on and soon if they wish to maintain public faith in the justice system.