Police Investigate Death Of Suspect in Cop Killing
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. In Prince George's County, Maryland, just outside the District of Columbia, 19-year-old Ronnie White was found dead in his jail cell Sunday morning. White had been charged with killing a county police officer by running him over with a stolen pickup truck on Friday morning.
A medical examiner has ruled White's death a homicide by strangulation and asphyxiation, and as you'll hear, very few people had access to the cell where he died.
Reporter Aaron Davis is covering this story for the Washington Post, and he joins us by phone. Aaron Davis, first, where was Ronnie White's body found?
Mr. AARON DAVIS (Reporter, Washington Post): Ronnie White's body was found in his jail cell. According to jail authorities, he was slumped over, sitting on the floor of his cell against his bunk. He had just been seen 20 minutes earlier by a guard who had made a routine check -which were done every 30 minutes - because Ronnie White was in solitary confinement and considered a high-profile inmate.
SIEGEL: Now given the finding of the medical examiner, is it possible that the death could have been accidental?
Mr. DAVIS: The medical examiner, even though it's a preliminary finding, they were pretty adamant yesterday that it was a death by asphyxiation, strangulation. There were two broken bones in the front of Ronnie White's neck. Medical experts I've spoken with say that is consistent with asphyxiation by either hands or perhaps the weight of a foot on a neck.
SIEGEL: Who would've had access to the cell that he was in for that last half hour of his life?
Mr. DAVIS: County executive Jack Johnson last night said that at this point, there are seven guards known to have keys to the cell where Ronnie White was in, and that an undetermined number of supervisors also may have had access to that cell.
When pressed about whether or not other inmates could have had access to him, he was pretty clear that right now, they are simply focusing on those people believed to have access.
SIEGEL: Who's investigating this now?
Mr. DAVIS: This has been handed over to the Maryland State Police. Also, the FBI has launched a civil-rights investigation into this. So there are both state and federal investigations now.
SIEGEL: Before the death of Ronnie White, the incident in which he is alleged to have run over a county police officer was highly publicized. Did that first injury and then later death of the police officer, did news of that travel through the law-enforcement community in Prince George's County, where he…
Mr. DAVIS: Oh, yes. The original crime, the crime with which Ronnie White was charged and had been booked, was the first county law-enforcement officer killed in the line of duty in three years. Corporal Finley was attempting to box in White, who was in a stolen pickup truck. White accelerated, according to charging documents, at Corporal Finley and ran him over. Corporal Finley got caught up on the truck and was dragged a certain distance.
On Friday, there was a full-on man hunt for White and another man who -believed to be the passenger, who was shot by Finley during the attack.
SIEGEL: We should say here that when something like this happens - and Ronnie White was African-American - when something like this happens in Prince George's County, a majority-black county, there is instantly discussion of race because there is a history of, frankly, bad blood between the police and the population.
Mr. DAVIS: There is. Everyone who lives here would like to believe it's moved on, it's gotten a little better. There are some deep-seeded concerns here, though, in the county. It's a very dynamic, changing county. It's the most affluent black county in the country. It's also a county that's receiving a lot of influx of the immigrant population, as well.
SIEGEL: This story has also brought on to the front pages of the local papers here the record of this particular correctional facility, a Prince George's County jail, for laxness that's a little startling.
Mr. DAVIS: Right. To be clear, county officials are trying to say that this is an issue that happened inside the jail. This was not the police department. Ronnie White was handed over to the corrections staff, you know, booked into the county correctional center, which has had a number of problems. And just in the past year, a guard who was allegedly a member of the Bloods street gang was arrested on charges of supplying inmates with cell phones. Another was charged with armed robbery and assault in a county nearby.
SIEGEL: Those are guards who were…
Mr. DAVIS: Guards, yes. And two inmates were found to have keys, and a detainee was wounded during an attack. Earlier this month, the director of the corrections center was fired after another incident. Four handguns had disappeared from the jail's armory.
SIEGEL: So this isn't the first blot on the record of this particular facility - maybe the most egregious, but not the only one.
Mr. DAVIS: Far from it, yes. But this death in custody has become a huge deal, here. Yes.
SIEGEL: Well, thanks for talking to us.
Mr. DAVIS: Thank you.
SIEGEL: That's reporter Aaron Davis of the Washington Post, who's been covering the story of the death of Ronnie White in a Prince George's County jail cell.