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Eastern Shore

Family of Anton Black claims autopsy review shows racial discrimination in the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner

Images of Anton Black, a 19-year-old who died after being chased and pinned down for more than six minutes by police in 2018 in Greensboro.

A legal team for the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black and his family alleged Thursday that their review of 57 Maryland autopsies demonstrates their claims that state medical examiners conspired with police to minimize their responsibility for in-custody deaths.

The review is part of an amended federal lawsuit against the state and three medical examiners: Dr. David Fowler, the state’s former chief; John Stash, the former interim chief; and Russell Alexander, who performed Black’s autopsy. The legal team claims its review offers evidence that the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner misrepresented the cause and manner of death for in-custody deaths, especially for African Americans and disabled people.

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Black, a 19-year-old Black man, was shocked with a Taser stun gun and restrained in a prone position by three white police officers and a white civilian for about six minutes in September 2018 in Greensboro in Caroline County on the Eastern Shore. He was pronounced dead at a hospital. The lawsuit also alleges that the medical examiner’s office promoted a fabricated story that Black possibly took so-called “spice,” a synthetic cannabinoid, to protect police from responsibility for his death.

Alexander ruled Black’s death an accident caused by a heart condition and that bipolar disorder contributed to the cause, according to the lawsuit. He wrote in the autopsy report that Black may have used drugs and there was no evidence that being restrained caused or contributed to his death.

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Two toxicology reports, including one by the medical examiner’s office, determined Black did not have drugs in his system, according to the lawsuit.

In this Jan. 28, 2019 file photo, Jennell Black, mother of Anton Black, looks at a collection of her son's belongings at her home in Greensboro.

Four law firms and the ACLU, which represent the Black family and the coalition, identified 57 autopsies of people who died in police custody and whose deaths did not result from a gunshot wound or car crash during a police pursuit. The review was born from public records and a list of 1,300 in-custody death autopsies conducted by the medical examiner’s office during Fowler’s tenure. The Maryland Attorney General’s Office compiled the list in 2021 after Fowler’s controversial testimony in ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial. Fowler testified that Chauvin was not responsible for George Floyd’s death.

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That testimony motivated 431 doctors to sign a letter to Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh questioning Fowler’s credibility and disputing his analysis that Floyd’s death should be ruled “undetermined” rather than a homicide. In October, Frosh said an independent team of reviewers will launch an audit to further review 100 autopsies performed by Fowler involving people who died after being restrained by law enforcement.

The Attorney General’s Office is still recruiting members to the audit team and does not have a timeline for when that could be complete, a spokesperson said Thursday. The audit will focus on whether medical examiners “exhibited racial or pro-law enforcement bias or failed to follow appropriate practices and protocols.”

Attorneys for Black’s family and the coalition amended the lawsuit Tuesday to include a claim of racial discrimination in the medical examiner’s office’s custody death investigations. Their legal team claims the autopsy review is evidence of racial discrimination and discrimination against people with disabilities.

In August, part of the lawsuit against several Eastern Shore municipalities and police officers was settled for $5 million. Black’s death has inspired significant departmental and legislative changes to policing in Maryland.

The portion of the lawsuit alleging misconduct and conspiracy in the Office of the Medical Examiner is ongoing.

Of 57 autopsies of people who died in police custody, the lawsuit says the medical examiner’s office determined the death was not a homicide in 88% of cases despite the decedent having been Tased, pepper sprayed, struck with a baton, or placed in a prone restraint. And of the cases that were ruled homicides, 21% of the decedents were white and just 8% were Black, the lawsuit says.

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“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,” attorneys wrote in the amended complaint.


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