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East Baltimore death in police custody ruled a homicide

The state medical examiner has determined that an East Baltimore man's death in police custody last month was a homicide caused by blunt force trauma, an account that conflicts with earlier assertions that he died from choking on drugs.

A copy of the autopsy report provided by the family of Anthony Anderson, 46, showed that he suffered fractures to eight ribs, contusions to his left lung and a ruptured spleen.

The determination that Anderson died by homicide means the death was caused by another person, though it does not speak to intent, or whether the death was an accident. Police and prosecutors were investigating the circumstances to determine whether officers acted improperly during the arrest, and declined to comment in detail.

Relatives and supporters of the family said the autopsy validated their claims that Anderson's death was caused by the officers and say the officers need to be held accountable. The arrest, on suspected drug possession, occurred in a vacant lot in the Broadway East neighborhood.

"Tony suffered on that lot," said his sister, Nancy Harvey, at a news conference. "We want those officers fired. We want them arrested, and want them convicted. Because if it was a normal citizen that committed homicide, they'd be behind bars."

"I'm hoping this officer will not be treated differently than anybody else who murders someone in the streets of Baltimore City, because that's what this family and that's what I consider it to be," said family attorney J. Wyndal Gordon.

Robert F. Cherry, the president of the city's Fraternal Order of Police lodge, said he believed the findings indicate that Anderson's death was a "tragic case where the subject was taken down within [police protocols] and died as a result of his fall."

Accounts from people who said they saw the incident varied. Anderson's family has maintained that they saw him lifted high in the air and thrown down on his head. Gordon said that Anderson was raised "as high as a basketball hoop."

But one woman who spoke last week with The Baltimore Sun gave a more measured account. Jennifer Cheese said she saw officers throw Anderson down and "tussle with him a bit," though she agreed that officers "took it over the top."

Cherry, who had not seen the autopsy report in its entirety but had been briefed on its findings, said the report "clearly shows that he wasn't lifted up and slammed head first."

Gordon countered that Anderson's injuries would not have resulted from a routine arrest.

"People get taken down in the streets every day. They don't die. They don't have their spleens ruptured," he said. "The trauma alone from the force of the impact between Mr. Anderson and the ground speaks volumes about the manhandling he suffered."

The decision on whether to bring charges in the case ultimately rests with the Baltimore state's attorney's office, which could take the case before a grand jury.

Janice Bledsoe, a defense attorney who recently left the state's attorney's office after serving as its police misconduct prosecutor, said that police would have to show that tactics used to take down Anderson were within their training guidelines.

"There are protocols and procedures that talk about what is the appropriate force," said Bledsoe. "They can say, 'We had to take him down,' but was that appropriate for the circumstance?"

Bledsoe prosecuted a case in which a video showed Officer Donyell Briggs punching Ricky Thomas in the face and stomping on him after placing him under arrest following a chase. Briggs was given probation before judgment, though his attorney maintained that the use of force was legitimate and that Thomas posed a threat.

At Briggs' trial, prosecutors called as a witness a Virginia-based martial-arts expert, Lewis Hicks, who has taught city officers how to bring suspects under control without using excessive force. Documents showed that Briggs had been through that training twice, and Hicks testified that Briggs didn't apply the techniques correctly.

In Anderson's case, police said a toxicology report shows that morphine was found in his system, which police believe at least in part corroborates an initial account that he swallowed drugs during the arrest Sept. 21.

He was being taken into custody at about 6 p.m. at the corner of East Biddle Street and North Montford Avenue.

Police initially said it was believed that he died from asphyxiation after choking on drugs, but activists, including the Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, said they conducted a "community investigation" and began disputing the account.

The next Monday morning — three days later — police revised their earlier comments that Anderson had choked on drugs, saying it was not supported by early autopsy results.

"It was thought that he died from an airway obstruction after ingesting drugs. He did not die of an airway obstruction; however, he did ingest suspected narcotics," said the Police Department's chief spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi. He stressed that police were not disputing the medical examiner's finding that an injury was the cause of death.

The officers involved in the incident have been placed on administrative duties while the investigation continues, and the Police Department declined to identify them, citing concerns for their safety. Had Anderson died in a shooting, however, the officers would have been identified after 48 hours, under agency policy.

The agency's new commissioner, Anthony Batts, visited the Anderson family last week but was not available for comment Tuesday.

The family accused the police Tuesday of attempting a "cover-up," which Gordon called "astonishing." Witherspoon said the officers were getting a "paid vacation at the expense of taxpayers."

"We've got to create a new precedent in Baltimore, in terms of officers committing crimes against citizens," Witherspoon said, in calling for charges. "If that happens, it will send a clear and distinctive message to the citizens and other officers that there is a standard to uphold."

The case has not been referred to the state's attorney's office.

Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein, said prosecutors will "independently determine which criminal charges, if any, are warranted" but declined to comment further, citing the open investigation.

Glenn F. Ivey, a Washington-based attorney and former Prince George's County state's attorney, said he saw similar cases there. Generally, he said, witness statements, 911 calls, and autopsy are all taken into consideration.

"The question would be whether the homicide was caused by appropriate force, excessive force, or it could have been by trauma that was caused by something unrelated to the police conduct entirely," Ivey said. "I think that is what is going to have to be sorted out."

Family members have said Anderson had battled drug addiction. Court records show he had a long criminal record, including a four-year sentence in 2009 for drug-related charges and a five-year sentence in 2000 for robbery.

Family members say that's all irrelevant to what happened on the night he died.

"We do not have a problem with the Baltimore City Police Department," said Harvey, Anderson's sister. "We have a problem with officers who think they're above the law."

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.

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