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July 2nd, 2008
10:40 AM ET

Death in custody – the investigation begins

Bobby G. Henry Jr., attorney for the family of inmate Ronnie L. White speaks to reporters outside the Prince George County Courthouse, Tuesday.

Bobby G. Henry Jr., attorney for the family of inmate Ronnie L. White speaks to reporters outside the Prince George County Courthouse, Tuesday.

Joe Johns
AC360° Correspondent

I’ve been in and around Washington DC and its suburbs for a long time. When I first got here I covered the police beat. I’m not doing that anymore, but I’ve gotta tell you they’ve got one hell of a mess in Prince Georges County, Maryland right now. The kind of mess that sounds completely new, and somehow very familiar.

First a county police officer gets run over and killed with a stolen pickup truck. Then a 19-year-old gets arrested and charged with murder. Then the suspect ends up dead in custody.

And now, the preliminary ruling by the medical examiner is strangulation. Hint: its darnn near impossible to strangle yourself.

So the facts are gruesome enough. But here’s why it’s a real mess: the government accountability red lights are flashing all over the place here. For one thing, when somebody gets locked up for allegedly murdering a police officer, one former medical examiner told me, the best practice is to move that person to a lock up outside of the jurisdiction.

It's sort of a no-brainer. Tensions are running high, and who knows, the suspect could end up dead before he makes it to trial. That’s pretty much what happened here, isn’t it?

Then there’s the question of “where were the cameras?” You would think that they’d have cameras all over the place – and we hear they had some. Only thing is the cameras didn’t record any video? Some guy sits in front of monitors and watches the action real time? What’s up with that?

And on top of all that, there is the way the suspect’s demise first got labeled an “unattended death” - which opens to door for possible contamination or loss of evidence. On and on it goes.

Now don’t get me wrong – there may be reasonable explanations for all this stuff, and no one is accusing anyone of malfeasance or even misfeasance, except perhaps the attorney for the family of the dead suspect. We’ll hear more about this. Everybody is investigating. The state police are investigating, and the Feds are sniffing around, too.

Here is why it sounds so familiar: authorities in Prince Georges have struggled for decades (yes, I said decades) with the nagging reputation of police heavy-handedness and unnecessary use of force. But here’s the new twist: the suspect was in the custody of jailers when he died, not police officers.

So now, to unravel this mess, it's up to the investigators, and State Attorney Glen Ivey, a top shelf lawyer with keen political skills. Ivey’s got a straight shooter reputation. The Hill crowd I used to hang with knew him when he was Chief Counsel to former US Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

So it’s a new day in Prince Georges County, but this guy is gonna have his hands full for a while. If you see, him tell him to return my call.


Filed under: Crime & Punishment • Joe Johns
soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Nicolas Palmisano

    Honestly who cares that someone killed him. He ran over a cop with a car and killed him! What about the Man he killed and his rights. What about the family of the cop and there rights? So someone killed a black man. He killed a White Man.

    Nicolas Palmisano

    July 2, 2008 at 8:58 pm |
  2. Cynthia

    What is this world coming to? First a woman is left lying on the floor for an hour and people see her there and don't help her and she dies. Now, someone in police custody end up dead.

    July 2, 2008 at 8:50 pm |
  3. Alex

    Hey Joe,
    I've always liked your work and sometimes I feel the excellence of it doesn't receive it's due. But I think it safe to say, times have changed and "In-Custody" deaths are far more carefully reviewed and investigated. Considering the circumstances surrounding this death, there are only a limited number of folks who could have "dispatched" the suspect. It is important that people DO NOT jump to conclusions before the investigation is complete. Getting all the facts and examining all evidence is of the greatest importance at this point. Let justice run it's course. The days of a "cover-up" is a thing of the past.

    July 2, 2008 at 6:23 pm |
  4. Terrence Harrison

    Hey Joe

    I like your post and I am glad that this story is getting some national exposure. I am a Maryland rersident and believe me I will be following this story as I hope CNN will continue to as well. If and / or when this is officially classified as a muder I hope that the person(s) responsible as prosecited with the same zeal as Ronnie White was found and arrested.

    July 2, 2008 at 4:18 pm |
  5. Improbus

    Do you know what is almost as troubling as the murder itself? That someone thought they could get away with it. Who knows, they just might.

    July 2, 2008 at 2:43 pm |
  6. Barb, Des Plaines

    Whoa. What is with the news this week. We've got stricter gun laws being hosed down, vigilante idiots gone wild in Texas, and now cops and or jailers possibly involved in the "strangulation" of this kid.

    People generally seem to have a very low opinion of our justice system. The courts believe we should all be able to carry whatever weapon we like (do we really need guns to protect ourselves from the criminals, the government, and now the cops?) Gun-slinging citizens rely on the courts' being stupid enough to think our right to bare arms trumps everyone else's right to a fair trial. Now, it looks like even the cops think it's o.k. to mete out death sentences as they see fit.

    There seems to be a second helping of zero accountability for anybody being passed around the table. Moreover, we're all getting way too used to this apocalypto violence level.

    Thanks for the article, Joe. Hope whoever was involved is held accountable for this one.

    July 2, 2008 at 2:22 pm |
  7. TESAP. SAVANNAH, GA

    WELL, this happens more often than you would think. And my bet is they get off.......... cops usually do. Just like the ones who shot Mr. Bell 51 times.

    July 2, 2008 at 2:12 pm |
  8. carmen

    Hi Joe:

    Always enjoy your work and as usual you begin with a lot of questions. It would appear that this does not add up to a simple situation. Hope this web can be untangled and that the truth will emerge.

    July 2, 2008 at 1:25 pm |
  9. Fay, CA

    This case needs a very thorough investigation because the details of it sound pretty suspicious–there have been too many instances of people in law enforcement who cross the line into criminal behavior themselves–those police officers that were fired for beating up some suspects in Philadelphia after another officer was shot and the cop in Chicago who was caught on tape attacking a woman in a bar are two examples. There are plenty of good cops doing admirable work in a very difficult job, but the bad ones should be weeded out when it becomes clear that they can't handle the many stresses of the job.

    July 2, 2008 at 1:09 pm |
  10. Mike in NYC

    Whoever was responsible was clearly not deterred by the predictable reactions (outrage, inevitable lawsuit, etc.).

    Could it be that cops are getting fed up with a broken criminal justice system?

    Lesson: If you kill a cop, kill yourself before they get to you.

    That being said, I don’t think the penalty for killing a cop should be any greater than that for killing a civilian.

    July 2, 2008 at 1:08 pm |
  11. Larry

    The police must be VERY stupid to have killed the guy in his jail cell; they must know that they would be the obvious suspects.

    July 2, 2008 at 11:34 am |
  12. Marlon

    This is yet another tragedy of an African-American male who killed at the hands of law enforcers. The worst part about it is, no one truly knows if this kid was actually the one that was driving the truck that ran down the police officer. And by the police station not willing to cooperate with the attorneys, the FBI and the Justice Department is making them look even more suspect. I hope the truth comes out in this matter and soon. It's unfair that a young man had to be killed rather than be given a fair trial and punished for his role in the crime.

    July 2, 2008 at 11:14 am |
  13. Michael, NC

    Part of me says karma is a b.... and part of me says "what are the officials thinking? It is obvious that it was an inside job, as Michelle said. The only people with the authority to get in there would be the jailers or the officers in that jurisdiction (and they already know he was kept in the same jurisdiction...), so I truly believe that is where the investigation should start.
    Hope to hear more on this story on the program soon!

    July 2, 2008 at 11:12 am |
  14. Annie Kate

    This sounds like the beginning of a whodunit book – maybe a Patricia Cromwell book. It also sounds like there might be too many people investigating – how I wonder are they handling the custody of evidence so nothing gets lost or tampered with if they find anything. I hope they return your call – this is one murder mystery I'd like to hear the end to.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    July 2, 2008 at 11:00 am |
  15. Cindy

    Joe,
    They definitely have a mess on their hands indeed with this one! It just can not be a coincidence that this 19 yr old ran over and killed a police, was arrested and then was strangled with no one seeing or hearing anything what so ever. I just find that very hard to believe! It seems to me that they took justice into their own hands there. And I bet that they will try their best to cover it up also! Let's hope that an outside entity looks into this murder and not any surrounding police forces!

    Cindy...Ga.

    July 2, 2008 at 10:54 am |
  16. Kristen- Philadelphia, PA

    Hi Joe. Nice article. I grew up in PG County and my family still lives there. This is a horrible story and I really hope they get to the bottom of this.

    While this kid may have very well been guilty it is not up to any one person to take the law into their own hands. Whoever did kill this kid is no better than the kid. I don't care how angry you are you don't honor the fallen police officer by murdering his alleged killer. Now where the focus should be on remembering the officer is on this murdered kid. Just a sad story and I hope this person is brought to justice. What kind of system is this where people area sentenced to death before even being tried?

    July 2, 2008 at 10:50 am |
  17. Michelle

    I was surprised that 360 did not do more on this story
    last night. There are some many questions. I don't
    think you have to be a genius to jump to the conclusion
    that this was an inside job.

    July 2, 2008 at 10:49 am |