GREENSBORO — The family of Anton Black and the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black disclosed new evidence Thursday alleging that the state medical examiner’s office shielded police from responsibility for in-custody deaths.
The evidence was disclosed as part of the amended federal lawsuit against the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Assistant Medical Examiner Russell Alexander, interim Chief Medical Examiner John Stash and former Chief Medical Examiner David Fowler.
The suit alleges that the state medical examiner’s office, particularly under Fowler’s leadership, has a “long and disgraceful” history of falsely concluding that law enforcement officers didn’t cause the death of people in their custody, particularly in the deaths of Black and disabled individuals.
Fowler came into national spotlight after serving as the only medical expert to testify on behalf of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted last April for the May 2020 murder of George Floyd. Fowler testified that Floyd’s manner of death should be classified as undetermined, rather than a homicide.
Following the trial, over 400 medical experts sent an open letter to Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh calling for an investigation into the OCME’s in-custody death determinations under Fowler’s leadership to determine if they exhibited racial or pro-law enforcement bias or failed to follow appropriate practices and protocols. The state later agreed to review the practices of the state medical examiner’s office.
In October, the team conducting the review released a report stating there was a need for reexamination of about 100 in-custody death cases similar to Black’s where the decedent was physically restrained and there was no obvious cause of death.
Black, 19, died on Sept. 15, 2018, after being restrained by three white police officers and a white civilian in Greensboro. Alexander ruled that Black’s death was an accident caused by a heart condition, with bipolar disorder as a contributing cause. The suit also alleges that the autopsy report falsely claimed that Black had possibly smoked “spice,” a synthetic cannabinoid.
In August, Black’s family settled with the three municipalities involved with Black’s death: the Greensboro, Ridgely and Centreville police departments. The towns agreed to pay Black’s family $5 million and institute reforms overhauling use of force policies and enhancement of resources for police handling similar situations.
The suit also alleges that under Fowler’s tenure, the state medical examiner’s office had systemic issues with its reviews of restraint cases and failed to properly apply standards approved by the National Academy of Medical Examiners. Attorneys say that based on data released with the review, the OCME has “almost never concluded that deaths in police custody are homicides” without a gunshot wound.
Black’s legal team identified 57 cases where an individual was in police custody and did not die of a gunshot wound or injuries sustained in a police pursuit. Of those 57 cases, the state medical examiner’s office concluded that the death was not a homicide 88% of the time, even if the individual in custody had been Tased, pepper sprayed or subjected to other uses of force.
The suit also asserted that medical examiners were more likely to conclude that a death in state custody was a homicide when the individual was white.
Attorneys for Black’s family said that the gravity of the medical examiners’ 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,” attorneys wrote in the amended complaint.
In the amended lawsuit, the Black family and Coalition for Justice for Anton Black asked the court to order reforms in practices at the state medical examiner’s office. The family also asked for an injunction permanently barring Fowler and Alexander from practicing medicine in Maryland.