For years, the families of Anton Black, Karreem Ali and Tyrone West have tried to get someone — anyone — to listen. They filed lawsuits, held vigils and investigated, all in hopes of making people take another look at former Maryland Chief Medical Examiner David Fowler’s conclusion that police weren’t responsible for their loved ones’ deaths.
Earlier this month, Fowler testified that the Minnesota police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes had nothing to do with Floyd’s death. Fowler blamed carbon monoxide, drug use, a heart condition and other factors, contradicting other medical experts in the trial who said there was no question that former Officer Derek Chauvin killed Floyd.
In two days on the stand, Fowler’s much-maligned testimony achieved what they and their lawyers had been unable to do: Drive prosecutors to take another look at his work.
“The whole world had the opportunity to witness Fowler’s testimony during the Chauvin trial, and it should have been evidence that there were bad practices in his reports,” said Shukriyah Satterfield, a lawyer whose uncle, Ali, 65, died in the custody of Montgomery County police in 2010.
On Friday, nine days after Fowler testified, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh announced that an independent panel would review every in-custody death the medical examiner’s office handled from 2002, when Fowler joined the office, until 2019, when he retired and began a consulting career.
Tawanda Jones said that she “cried like a baby” when she heard the news of the review.
“It’s long overdue,” said Jones, whose brother, Tyrone West, died in the custody of Baltimore Police in July 2013. Witnesses said officers beat West and used pepper spray. Fowler ruled that West, 44, died because of a heart condition exacerbated by the struggle with police amid summer heat.
Raquel Coombs, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, would not address why an investigation of Fowler’s work had not been conducted earlier, considering the complaints of several families and their attorneys.
“I can’t speak to why it wasn’t done by another agency prior. But, the office of attorney general is willing to take on the review,” Coombs said.
The city and state in 2017 paid $1 million to West’s three children to settle a lawsuit.
Jones has been holding vigils nearly every Wednesday night since her brother’s death to call attention to the conduct of police and what she calls Fowler’s improper ruling.
She said she and other family members sent messages to Floyd’s family via Instagram to share what had happened to them, although they haven’t heard back.
Jones said that when she watched the video of Floyd’s death, she felt like she was watching a replay of what happened to her brother. And she noted that Chauvin was held to account because of video taken by a bystander, while there was no video of her brother’s death.
“Had it not been for that damning video of George Floyd crying out, ‘Mama,’ we wouldn’t have never had accountability,” she said.
Frosh’s announcement came less than 24 hours after the attorney general’s office received a letter from the former medical examiner of Washington, D.C., Roger A. Mitchell, signed by more than 400 doctors from around the country, saying Fowler’s testimony and conclusions were so far outside the bounds of accepted forensic practice that all his previous work could come into question.
After the announcement, Fowler defended his office’s work, noting that he was not solely responsible for autopsy conclusions.
“There’s a large team of forensic pathologists, with layers of supervision, and those medical examiners always did tremendous work,” Fowler said.
The announcement also followed criticism from the family and attorneys of Anton Black, a 19-year-old who died in 2018 after police in Greensboro, on the Eastern Shore, sat on the teen for more than six minutes. Fowler ruled that Black died not because of the officer’s actions, but from a “sudden cardiac death” likely connected to the teen’s struggle with law enforcement, according to the autopsy report.
The event was captured on police body camera footage, which the lawsuit contends officials wrongfully kept from the family for months until Gov. Larry Hogan ordered it released. The lawsuit alleges that Fowler conspired with Greensboro police and others to “coverup” their actions by ruling the death was not a homicide caused by police.
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“The video of this incident is horrendous,” Ken Ravenell, an attorney for the family, said when the lawsuit was filed. “It is staggering how much was done wrong in this case that was improper, illegal, unethical and disgraceful.”
Latoya Holley, Black’s 40-year-old sister, said in an interview that an investigation of Fowler’s work as Maryland’s chief medical examiner was overdue.
“I think it is shameful they took this long to look into it,” Holley said. “ I do not believe we would have come this far if Dr. Fowler did not think it was OK for him to go testify for a police officer [Chauvin] that was clearly guilty.
“They need to make it right for all of us, for every family involved. We have been trying to get someone to listen, someone to care. We weren’t taken seriously, and all other families weren’t taken seriously as well.”
In the case of Ali, who died in Montgomery County in 2010, police responded to what appeared to be a mental health episode. Police used a Taser device to shock him 16 times for a total of nearly 2 minutes, and the county paid $450,000 in 2016 to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit without admitting guilt.
Fowler ruled the cause of death to be the result of “schizophrenia induced agitated delirium,” complicated by “police restraint.”
“There is no person holding these people [like Fowler] accountable,” said Satterfield, Ali’s niece and a former assistant public defender in Baltimore. “It really is infuriating. I know, because I have a personal loss from it.”