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Anton Black case: Autopsy shows teen died of sudden cardiac death; stress of police struggle likely contributed

Anton Black, the African-American teenager who died in police custody on the Eastern Shore, suffered “sudden cardiac death” and it is likely that his struggle with law enforcement contributed, according to the autopsy report prepared by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Black’s family has been pushing for answers about his death for more than four months, but until Wednesday, little information was known. The 19-year-old aspiring model and soon-to-be father died Sept. 15 after a stop by a member of the Greensboro Police Department.

The autopsy report, obtained by The Baltimore Sun Wednesday night, states that an underlying heart condition and a mental illness were factors in Black’s death.

The incident began after a woman called 911 to report seeing a man kidnapping a child. Black’s family has said that the young child he was with was a family member and close friend, and the teen would never have put him in danger.

When a white Greensboro police officer approached the pair, Black ran away — heading for his family’s home nearby. Once he got there, the autopsy states, he got into a car that was parked out front. The officer smashed the window with his baton before deploying his taser, which may not have had an effect. After Black jumped out the other side of the car, that officer and others tried to restrain him, quickly tackling him to the ground in front of his mother’s home.

About a minute after his legs were restrained, the autopsy notes, Black became unresponsive. About two minutes later, it states, his mother told officers that “he is turning dark.”

The autopsy finds evidence of blunt force trauma, including abrasions on his head and face. However, “There was no evidence (based on a review of officer interviews and a video of the incident) that the decedent was physically struck by officers, or had force applied to his neck,” the report states.

“It is likely that the stress of his struggle contributed to his death,” it reads. “However, no evidence was found that restraint by law enforcement directly caused or significantly contributed to the decedent’s death; in particular, no evidence was found that restraint led to the decedent being asphyxiated.”

The medical examiner said Black’s manner of death is best certified as an accident. A toxicology report found no evidence of drugs in his system.

A spokesman for the family declined to comment on the autopsy's findings Wednesday night.

Also on Wednesday, Greensboro police allowed reporters to view the body-worn camera footage captured the day Black died. It still hasn’t been released publicly, despite outcry from Black’s family.

Two days ago, Gov. Larry Hogan told reporters he’d taken a personal interest in the case and was pushing for information on what happened to Black. He reiterated Wednesday that he wants full transparency.

“I want all of it to be released to the public as quickly as possible: the full state police report, the autopsy, the toxicology report,” Hogan, a Republican, said. “We really need to get the facts out there.”

Under increased political pressure, police called a news conference for Wednesday morning. A media advisory said the department would release the 911 tapes and body camera footage to “help the community better understand the circumstances leading up to Anton Black’s death.” Redacted versions of the recordings were supposed to be posted to the department’s Facebook page later Wednesday, but Caroline County State's Attorney Joe Riley said he was still awaiting the medical examiner’s report, which he said would determine if he would make the footage available.

Maryland State Police, who took over the investigation almost immediately, said the local officer got out of his vehicle and told Black to release the boy, which he did, and then place his hands behind his back for arrest.

The body camera footage shows Black fleeing on foot along Route 33. A Greensboro officer states on the video that the teenager is suffering from a mental illness — a claim his family has vehemently denied.

The officer and two others — members of nearby police departments, who happened to be near the scene — chase Black to his parents’ home in a trailer park, along with a civilian who joined in, the video shows. Black goes into a family member’s car parked outside the mobile home.

There, per the video, a Greensboro officer uses his baton to shatter the car’s window and shocks Black with a Taser in an attempt to restrain him. It appears the taser may not have worked, and Black climbs out the other side of the car.

Officers force him to the ground, overpowering him in an attempt to put him in handcuffs and ankle restraints, the video shows. The civilian who joins in the chase assists the officers in restraining Black.

During one portion of the video, his mother, Jennell Black, steps out the front door of her home to see her son pinned down by multiple police officers.

“Anton!” she screams, as she watches what would be a fatal encounter between her son and law enforcement unfold.

Black quickly shows signs of medical distress, looking limp and unresponsive. His mother asks at one point: “Is he breathing?” The video shows him slumped over and not moving. As the video rolls, Black’s pregnant girlfriend can be seen in the front yard, illuminated by flashing police lights.

Officers call for an ambulance and begin performing CPR, the video shows. They say this is a mental health emergency. Some officers on the scene speculate aloud that he is on drugs, though that was not substantiated in the autopsy. Not until many minutes of treatment pass do they remove his ankle shackles.

The Greensboro police officer makes a call to his chief: “We get him into custody and he goes out,” he says. “...It turned into a real show.”

Black was taken to Easton Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Earlier Wednesday, Black’s family disputed many facets of the police’s narrative. His sister LaToya Holley, 37, said Black was not diagnosed with a mental illness and was not wearing a medical bracelet, as police said.

Family also wonder why, if police treated this as a mental health emergency, officers chose to break the car window rather than seek out Black’s mother.

“They knew someone was home,” said Jennell Black. “They could’ve knocked on the door.”

The Greensboro officer at the center of the controversy is Thomas Webster IV. Prior to Black’s death, some residents protested his employment. He had been indicted on second-degree assault charges while working for a Delaware police force, according to the Wilmington News Journal. Dash-cam showed him kicking a black man in the jaw during an arrest in 2013. Webster was later found not guilty, and he resigned with a $230,000 severance package.

The Black family had been demanding Webster be put on administrative leave, a battle they won two weeks ago.

Family members and local advocates have formed a coalition to demand justice for their loved one. They say they don’t want another name added to the grim list that includes Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and now, Anton Black.

Greensboro remains divided over the teenager’s death and his family remains in mourning. In this town, three white police officers are responsible for protecting roughly 1,800 residents, about 16 percent of whom are black.

Holley said Black was a star athlete at North Caroline High School and a budding model. He had enrolled in Wesley College in Dover, Del., to study criminal justice and had once hoped to become police officer, she said.

He had been an expectant father, but died before ever meeting his daughter.

“He had so much potential,” said Richard Potter, a coalition leader. “He was snuffed out.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater and Jean Marbella contributed to this report.

This article has been updated.

trichman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/TaliRichman

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