Reforms Will Bring Greater Transparency and Accountability, in Memory of Eastern Shore Teenager Killed By Police
GREENSBORO, MD – Today, family members and the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black announced final resolution of their federal court litigation following the brutal, unconstitutional killing of Anton Black. Anton was 19 when he was chased, tased, and pinned facedown by four white men, including a white civilian wearing a Confederate motorcycle helmet. His killing was then improperly classified as an accident, rather than homicide, by Maryland Medical Examiners based on a police narrative that included demonstrably false allegations of drug abuse. The settlement announced today makes necessary changes to the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s process for autopsies conducted on people killed in law enforcement custody and requires notification to families about the results and their rights to challenge the results.
Last August, in the first part of their case that charged police and municipal officials with the unconstitutional killing of their beloved son, the family and the Coalition reached a settlement that required three Eastern Shore municipalities to implement reforms aimed at saving other families from future police violence, as well as $5 million in monetary relief for the family. All along, the Black family and the Coalition have been deeply committed to demanding accountability for the officials responsible for Anton’s killing and its cover up, and to working for reforms that will help save other families from the horrible grief they still suffer.
This landmark settlement with the Maryland Medical Examiner – the first of its kind ever in Maryland – will bring concrete changes to ensure that deaths in law enforcement custody are not given special treatment that too often favors the narratives and interests of police over those of decedents and their families.
Reforms to the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner include:
- For the first time, adoption of a policy explicitly addressing how medical examiners are to handle deaths in custody.
- Significantly, this policy applies to all deaths in custody involving law enforcement restraint, including deaths occurring in facilities like jails, prisons and juvenile facilities.
- The new policy incorporates and models guidelines of the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) for determining how such deaths are investigated and how examiners determine causation; The NAME standards are clear that whenever a person would not have died “but for” the intentional conduct of another, that death is a homicide;
- Transparency: Requiring documentation of all sources of initial investigative information and disclosure of any law enforcement or other personnel present for an autopsy.
- Impartiality: In-custody death investigations and autopsies must be performed impartially.
- Independence from improper law enforcement influence: Even if the source of information is law enforcement, medical examiners must consider investigative information independently and objectively in all cases. Non-OCME personnel are prohibited from providing input about the autopsy, inspection or examination.
- Internal review: Prior to release, all completed autopsy reports are presented and the Chief Medical Examiner or Deputy must review the file prior to approving its release.
- In addition, the OCME must provide families who receive autopsy reports with notice of their rights to seek correction and review of the findings, and list these rights on its website.
- The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner must now provide information on its website about new procedures for requesting an autopsy correction. And information about these procedures must also be attached to autopsy reports issued to the public.
Richard Potter, founder of the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black, said: “This settlement is an excellent first step, but as we engage in this new process community members must stay vigilant and engaged to make sure it’s effective. The best frontline approach to eliminating harm is increasing accountability within. That is why I hope that with this settlement agencies will begin to recognize their own wrongdoings, catch them and change them before they cause harm. What is needed is a sense of shared ownership that can only come through trust and mutual accountability, with police confronting their own biases about mental illness, committing to de-escalation, and truly serving a diverse community.”
This tragic case began on September 15, 2018, when white police officers from three different municipalities on Maryland’s Eastern Shore chased, tased, pinned, and ultimately, killed Anton Black on his mother’s front steps. Anton cried out to his mother as officers pressed down on his face, chest, and stomach for six minutes, causing him to die by positional asphyxiation, while his mother was held back, looking on in horror. The encounter was so gruesome it would later receive national attention from NBC’s News Anchor Lestor Holt on Dateline in an episode titled “What Happened To Anton Black.” In December 2020, Anton’s family and the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Baltimore, challenging Anton’s killing as discriminatory and unconstitutional, and charging an array of police, municipal and state officials both in taking part and in conspiring to cover up wrongful actions by police.
Among those sued and previously settled are decertified Officer Thomas Webster, who was hired by the Town of Greensboro despite community outcry about his long record of police abuse, and two Eastern Shore police chiefs — one of whom, former Greensboro Chief Michael Petyo, later pled guilty to criminal misconduct related to the cover up. The Office of the Maryland Medical Examiner and medical examiners David Fowler and Russell Alexander are also defendants in the litigation, and it is that second part of the litigation that has now settled.
Beyond their work on the Black v. Webster lawsuit, Anton’s killing caused his family and the Coalition formed to support them to become deeply involved in Maryland’s campaign for police reform and accountability. Efforts by the family and the Coalition led to the Maryland General Assembly’s passage in 2021 of Anton’s Law, which brings more transparency to police discipline records, making them available to the community under Maryland’s Public Information Act.
The family and Coalition also successfully pushed for state investigations leading to criminal prosecution and conviction of former Greensboro police chief Michael Petyo for covering up Thomas Webster’s past misconduct record, and decertification of Thomas Webster as a police officer anywhere in the State of Maryland. In addition, after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd and former Maryland Medical Examiner David Fowler testified in support of his killer, Derek Chauvin, the family and Coalition brought to light Fowler’s gross mishandling of official findings for Anton Black and other victims of deadly police violence in Maryland. This, in part, led to the Attorney General’s Office launching an investigation into the Medical Examiner’s Office under Fowler. That investigation continues.
Sonia Kumar, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said: “This hard-fought settlement is about ensuring that the Maryland Office of the Medical Examiner tells the truth about what happened when people, and particularly Black people, are killed by police or corrections officials. We can’t prevent such deaths if we aren’t honest about what caused them, and this settlement is a crucial step towards that goal in future cases. We hope this settlement will make a real, positive impact, but it is truly just the beginning of the reckoning needed to address decades of misrepresentations so we can bring justice to families still waiting for the government to tell the truth.”
Anton Black’s family is represented by Rene' C. Swafford of Law Office of Rene' C. Swafford, LLC; Leslie D. Hershfield of Schulman, Hershfield & Gilden, P.A.; and Tomeka G. Church of The Law Office of Tomeka G. Church, LLC. The Coalition for Justice for Anton Black is represented by the ACLU of Maryland: Senior Staff Attorney Sonia Kumar, Legal Director Deborah Jeon, with the support of Legal Advocacy Manager Gina Elleby and Legal Program Specialist Jay Jimenez; John A. Freedman, Jayce Born, Megan Pieper and Drew Needham of Arnold & Porter.