GREENSBORO, MD – The family of Anton Black and the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black are disclosing extensive new evidence supporting their misconduct charges against the state, former chief Medical Examiner Dr. David Fowler, and other medical examiners, including evidence of wrongdoing in the death investigation of Anton Black and evidence from the independent body created by Maryland’s Attorney General to reexamine the findings and practices of state medical examiners in police custody deaths. The new disclosures – detailing that medical examiners made knowingly false allegations to shield police and government agencies from responsibility in the killing of 19-year-old Anton Black as well as other Black and disabled victims of police violence – come as part of an amendment and update to the family’s lawsuit, following settlement with the involved police officers late this summer.
The updated legal complaint charges that the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), under the leadership of Dr. David Fowler, who became infamous nationwide when he served as an expert witness attempting to excuse Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd, engaged in a pattern of misrepresenting facts, medical evidence and basic principles of the profession to conceal the truth about police-involved deaths. The Amended Complaint in the Anton Black case alleges that Defendants misled the public with misrepresentative conclusions cloaked in medical terminology and purported uncertainty.
Among other things, Plaintiffs analyzed data released in connection with the Attorney General’s audit that showed that, in the absence of a gunshot wound, the OCME almost never found that police conduct causes deaths. Plaintiffs identified 57 cases where the decedent was in police custody and did not die of a gunshot wound or injuries from a police pursuit. Of these 57 cases, the OCME concluded the death was not a homicide 88 percent of the time, even when the decedent had been Tased, pepper sprayed, subject to police baton strikes, prone restraint, or other uses of force. Further, these cases show a significant racial disparity, with OCME examiners far more likely to conclude a death in state custody was a homicide when the decedent was white (21% of the time), than Black (8% of the time). This includes Anton’s case, where the Amended Complaint alleges in great factual detail how state police investigators and medical examiners conspired to perpetuate the false claims made by police that Anton was on drugs at the time of his death.
The Amended Complaint notes the life and death consequences when medical examiners conceal the truth about police violence:
“The gravity of this [misconduct] cannot be overstated: Defendants are the official arbiters of the government’s account of how a death occurred; their findings dictate how police understand their actions; how state’s attorneys decide whether to prosecute; whether decedents and their families are treated as victims; the hurdles survivors must clear to obtain relief; the scope of any given public health crisis; and how our society determines which deaths can be prevented.
“As a direct consequence of Defendants’ actions, public officials and all Marylanders have been repeatedly misled into believing that civilian deaths in police custody cannot be prevented. And the brunt of these failures has been borne disproportionately by Black Marylanders and, often, people with disabilities.”
As detailed in the Amended Complaint:
- Two years before George Floyd was murdered by former officer Derek Chauvin after being restrained and pinned down, Anton Black died in a chillingly similar manner on Maryland’s Eastern Shore;
- Even as Anton was dying, police officers can be heard on video starting to concoct a story of Anton being high on drugs laced with “spice” and exhibiting “superhuman” strength;
- The officers in turn fed this story to Maryland State Police investigators;
- Rather than investigating Anton’s death as a potential homicide, searching for evidence of wrongdoing, the State treated its “investigation” as an investigation into Anton himself, in an effort to corroborate the false claim by officers that Anton was on drugs at the time of his death.
- When the police allegations conflicted with the comprehensive toxicology screen conducted by the Maryland Medical Examiner’s office showing Anton was not on drugs, medical examiners, including Fowler, delayed public release of those results for months while allowing police to perpetuate the fabricated story in the press.
- Despite a second toxicology screen and written confirmation from the drug lab that the alleged drugs were “definitely not there,” Fowler and his subordinates nevertheless repeated this falsehood in the autopsy report, insisting that Anton “might have smoked spice.”
- In response to questions from the Caroline County State’s Attorney about the autopsy findings, the ME’s office misrepresented the toxicology results and reiterated false medical findings about Anton’s death, causing the State’s Attorney to decline to charge the involved officers or even to convene a grand jury to investigate.
“We are still battling for justice on behalf of our son,” said Jennell and Antone Black, parents of Anton Black. “Anton did not believe in using or injecting any type of drugs into his body, not street drugs or prescription drugs, because he was very involved in sports and his modeling career.”
“The evidence revealed is extremely alarming, however not surprising,” said Richard Potter of the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black. “This revelation is an example of exploring all avenues and holding all individuals accountable for their actions. When we strive to do this the pendulum of justice swings a bit closer in the right direction.”
Ultimately, the Maryland Medical Examiner’s official report said a “significant contributing condition” t Anton’s death “was bipolar disorder” (a mental health condition); that Anton died due to “anomalous right coronary artery and myocardial tunneling of the left anterior descending coronary artery” (a common condition that would not have caused his death); that he “might have smoked spice”; and that “no evidence was found that restraint by law enforcement directly caused or significantly contributed to the decedent’s death.”
“The State is supposed to tell us the truth,” said Sonia Kumar, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. “Instead, for decades, it has misled Marylanders by claiming police did not cause the deaths of people in their custody, perpetuating the lie that we could not save lives like Anton’s. Instead of getting to celebrate his 24th birthday, Anton Black’s family and his community are still fighting for the justice he deserves.”
Through the amended lawsuit, the Black family and Coalition are asking the Court to order reforms in practices at the Medical Examiner’s Office to protect other families from experiencing the egregious harm of having to fight the State to tell the truth about what killed their loved one.
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, and Staff Attorney Tierney Peprah, with the support of Legal Advocacy Manager Gina Elleby and Legal Program Coordinator Jay Jimenez; John A. Freedman, Ryan D. Budhu, Joseph P. Klemme, Jayce Born, and Florence Bryan of Arnold & Porter.