The Board of Public Works unanimously approved a settlement that resolves a lawsuit filed against the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner following the death of Anton Black five years ago.
The family of Black and his estate receive $100,000. Another $135,000 will be paid to lawyers representing the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black.
The settlement also includes landmark changes to the Office of the State Medical Examiner, according to a statement issued by the ACLU of Maryland on behalf of Black’s family and the coalition. Those reforms were announced shortly after the three-member board approved the cash payment.
Included in that settlement are new policies advocates say set explicit guidelines for how in-custody deaths are to be reviewed by the agency.
As part of that, the office is required to adopt national standards for how such deaths are investigated and how a cause of death is determined. The National Association of Medical Examiners requires a death to be ruled a homicide whenever it is determined that the death would not have occurred but for the intentional conduct of another person.
The new policies also require impartial investigations free from improper police influence. No one who is not an employee of the medical examiner’s office can provide input about the autopsy, inspection, or examination.
All completed autopsy results must be presented to the chief or deputy medical examiner for approval prior to release.
Families who receive autopsy reports must be informed of their rights to seek a correction or review findings.
“This settlement is an excellent first step, but as we engage in this new process community members must stay vigilant and engaged to make sure it’s effective,” said Richard Potter, founder of the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black. “The best frontline approach to eliminating harm is increasing accountability within. That is why I hope that with this settlement agencies will begin to recognize their own wrongdoings, catch them and change them before they cause harm. What is needed is a sense of shared ownership that can only come through trust and mutual accountability, with police confronting their own biases about mental illness, committing to de-escalation, and truly serving a diverse community.”
The settlements resolve all open lawsuits filed following Black’s death in police custody.
“This hard-fought settlement is about ensuring that the Maryland Office of the Medical Examiner tells the truth about what happened when people, and particularly Black people, are killed by police or corrections officials,” said Sonia Kumar, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. “We can’t prevent such deaths if we aren’t honest about what caused them, and this settlement is a crucial step towards that goal in future cases. We hope this settlement will make a real, positive impact, but it is truly just the beginning of the reckoning needed to address decades of misrepresentations so we can bring justice to families still waiting for the government to tell the truth.”
The panel, which includes Gov. Wes Moore (D), Comptroller Brooke Lierman (D) and Treasurer Dereck Davis (D) approved the financial settlement without discussion or debate.
Following the meeting, Moore declined to take questions on the settlement. In a later statement, his office said he was “pleased to support this recommended settlement agreed upon by the Attorney General’s Office, the Black Family, and the Coalition to satisfactorily resolve their legal claims against the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.”
Black, then 19, died on Sept. 15, 2018, after being restrained by police officers on a ramp in front of his mother’s home in the Eastern Shore town of Greensboro.
Black was seen on a bridge putting a younger acquaintance in a headlock. He was then chased by three white police officers and a white civilian.
The officers then attempted to subdue Black. They wrestled him to the ground, used a stun gun on him, held him down and, after handcuffing him, sat on top of Black for several minutes.
An autopsy performed by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled Black’s death the result of cardiac arrest. The report cited no evidence that Black was asphyxiated due to the restraints used by the officers.
In a 2020 federal civil rights lawsuit, Black’s family and the coalition claimed that excessive force and racial bias led to his death. They alleged the cause was “positional asphyxiation.” The family and lawsuit also alleged that the medical examiner and police from Greensboro, Ridgley and Centreville engaged in a cover-up.
That lawsuit was settled a year ago for $5 million.
Two years ago, the Office of the Attorney General began an audit of autopsy findings by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
The review of 100 cases was ordered after former Chief Medical Examiner Dr. David Fowler testified in the trial of Derek Chauvin, a Minnesota police officer accused of killing George Floyd. Fowler, during testimony in that case, refused to classify Floyd’s death as a homicide.
That audit is ongoing.
Black’s death became a pivotal point leading to police reforms.
The legislature passed a package of reforms of law enforcement in Maryland in 2021. Included in that was Anton’s Law. The law provides public transparency on disciplinary records of Maryland police officers. That transparency extends to complaints and investigations of officers both in their current jobs as well as positions in other agencies.
Previously, those records were shielded from the Maryland Public Information Act.
By Bryan P. Sears