Two years after 19-year-old Anton Black died in the Caroline County town of Greensboro under the crushing weight of three police officers holding him down, his estate filed a federal lawsuit alleging excessive force by officers and what it called “ensuing efforts” by a range of public officials to cover up the actions.
“Even as he died, officers began developing the false story they would use to defend their actions — falsely claiming that Anton was high on marijuana laced with another drug and exhibiting ‘superhuman’ strength,” the lawsuit alleged, adding that a state medical examiner concluded there were no drugs in Black’s system.
Black died on Sept. 15, 2018, from a “sudden cardiac death” likely connected to a struggle with law enforcement, according to the autopsy report prepared by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
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 video of this incident is horrendous,” said Ken Ravenell, an attorney for the family, during a news conference Thursday.
“It is staggering how much was done wrong in this case that was improper, illegal, unethical and disgraceful,” Ravenell said in a statement before the news conference. “But today we took a bold step towards justice for Anton Black and against the police officers who took his life and also against those who were complicit in covering up the injustice.”
The lawsuit likened Black’s death to the death this year of George Floyd, noting that Floyd also died of asphyxia after being pinned down by a team of police officers while struggling to breathe.
Defendants in the case include the town of Greensboro and its police chief, Michael Petyo, and Officer Thomas Webster IV, who the lawsuit contends was hired even though he has a long history of violent incidents against Black citizens. The state’s Chief Medical Examiner’s Office also is named as a defendant, alleging it didn’t a thorough and complete examination.
The Greensboro police department said it is aware of the lawsuit but did not comment. Webster could not be reached and calls to the medical examiner’s office were not returned.
Webster lost his certification to be a police officer in Maryland last year when, during scrutiny over Black’s death, it came to light that he failed to disclose nearly 30 use-of-force reports from his police career in Dover, Delaware. One incident involved him kicking a Black man in the face during a traffic stop.
Black, an aspiring actor and model, was confronted by Webster in Greensboro after police received a 911 call about Black wrestling with a smaller, younger boy, whom the lawsuit describes as a friend. When Webster arrived, the young friend told the officer that Black had been acting strange and “schizophrenic.”
“While not an accurate medical diagnosis, these statements and Anton’s demeanor made clear to Officer Webster, if he was not already aware, that Anton was experiencing a mental health crisis,” the lawsuit said. “Additionally, these factors made clear that (the young friend) was not in fear for his safety at the time Webster approached the boys.”
After a few minutes, Black ran and Webster gave chase, subduing him with the help of other officers even as Black pleaded for help, the lawsuit said. Black’s family and Ravenell allege that the officers involved were on top of Black’s body for at least six minutes, keeping him from breathing.
“It is not right what they did, no mother and no family should have to go through [that],” said his mother Jennell Black during the news conference. “I just want to get justice for my son.”
The lawsuit focuses particular attention on Webster and what it said was his record of repeated assaults and abuses against Black citizens in Delaware, where he previously worked and was indicted after being caught kicking Lateef Dickerson, breaking his jaw. He was found not guilty in that case.
“Despite Officer Webster’s long and well-documented history of improper, abusive, violent conduct and use of excessive force against Black people, Greensboro Town Manager Jeannette DeLude, who is white, told the Delaware News Journal in February 2018 that Officer Webster ‘was found innocent of everything, there is no history,’” the lawsuit said.