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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Ham sandwich indicted"

"Ham sandwich indicted"
Examiner, 10 Jun 2009 (Gregory Kane.
That's one newspaper headline I'd love to see. I've heard lawyers say it from time to time about prosecutors who defer to a grand jury that has declined to return an indictment against a particular suspect.

The saying is probably true, with one notable exception: Prince George's County, Md., where even a ham sandwich can't get indicted. Not if it works for the county government.

Last week, Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey announced no one will be prosecuted in the death of Ronnie L. White, who died in a Prince George's County detention facility in June of 2008. A brief back-story is in order.

On Friday, June 27, 2008, Prince George's County police officer Cpl. Richard S. Findley was killed after a suspect deliberately ran him over with a pickup truck. That suspect, according to police, was White. On Sunday morning, June 29, 2008, corrections officers at the jail found White "unresponsive and without a pulse" in his cell, according to news reports.

Those same news reports say that corrections officers have given two conflicting stories about how White was found. The first said that White was lying on the floor of his cell; later, an attorney for the corrections officers claimed that his clients found White hanging in his cell after he apparently committed suicide.

A coroner's report said that White had been assaulted and had broken bones in his neck, indicating he was strangled. The coroner ruled White's death a homicide. A union for corrections officers insists White's death was a suicide. A grand jury that looked into White's death but returned no indictments did not rule out suicide.

Ah, the homicide by suicide! We're all familiar with that, aren't we?

What's missing with all this talk of homicide vs. suicide and Ivey's decision not to prosecute anyone for anything is this: The issue of accountability. Prince George's County residents are owed an explanation about what happened to White, whether he was murdered or whether he committed suicide. He died in the custody of Prince George's County government workers whose duty it was to protect his life. The bottom line: those workers failed in that duty.

And this is not about being kind to suspected cop killers. It's about the rule of law. And the law clearly says how suspects are to be treated, that they're presumed innocent until proven guilty and that agents of the state or local government are not to harm them while they're in custody. What, exactly, is passing for the rule of law in Prince George's County these days?

Not much, apparently. Ditto for the notion of accountability. A guy dies in detention and officials can't tell us for sure if it was a homicide or a suicide. They can't tell us how corrections officers - whose job it is to prevent homicides and suicides--were disciplined for failing to prevent one or the other. The attitude seems to be: Guy dies in our custody, tough break, what's for lunch?

What makes this even worse is that Prince George's County is the one Maryland subdivision that can least afford this kind of bad publicity, coming as it does on the heels of what happened in the home of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo and his wife Trinity Tomsic last year. Remember that outrage?

Prince George's County police burst into the Calvo-Tomsic home, guns blazing, looking for marijuana, reputed to be no more harmful than tobacco or alcohol. But the marijuana was apparently harmful enough - or Calvo and his mother-in-law were - for police to fatally shoot Tomsic's two black Labrador retrievers.

Tomsic wasn't in the home at the time of the Prince George's County police department's jackboot raid, but Calvo and his mother-in-law were forced to lie spread-eagled on the floor.

Two marijuana dealers who regularly shipped their product to dwellings whose occupants had no clue about what the miscreants were doing apparently targeted the Calvo-Tomsic home. Prince George's County police officials said Calvo and Tomsic were completely innocent, apologized, but insisted cops acted appropriately.

Now we have Ivey telling us no one will be held accountable for White's death. When, exactly, did Prince George's County become some banana republic?

Examiner columnist Gregory Kane is a journalist who lives in Baltimore.

(Posted 10 Jun 2009)

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