Even after a toxicology report showed that Anton Black didn’t have drugs in his system, and a second one confirmed that the alleged drugs were “definitely not there,” Maryland’s former chief medical examiner pushed the falsehood that the 19-year-old killed in police custody in 2018 “might have smoked spice,” according to new allegations included in a court filing Tuesday by the teen’s family.

The filing is bolstered by a review by the family’s team of attorneys of 57 cases in which someone died while in police custody, but not of a gunshot wound or injuries sustained during a pursuit. In 88% of those cases, attorneys representing Black’s family said, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner concluded that the deaths were not homicides, despite the fact that some of the decedents had been Tased, pepper-sprayed, struck by police batons, restrained, or otherwise subjected to other uses of force by officers.

Black decedents were found to be homicide victims 8% of the time, compared to white decedents being found to be homicide victims 21% of the time, the complaint alleges.

“We are still battling for justice on behalf of our son,” Jennell and Antone Black, Anton Black’s parents, said in a statement released by the ACLU of Maryland, which is part of their team of lawyers. “Anton did not believe in using or injecting any type of drugs into his body, not street drugs or prescription drugs, because he was very involved in sports and his modeling career.”

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A spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Health, which oversees the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, declined to comment.

The alleged misconduct by medical examiners, the complaint argues, caused the Caroline County State’s Attorney to decline to charge the officers involved in Black’s death or convene a grand jury to investigate. The Caroline County State’s Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The wrongful-death lawsuit against the state of Maryland over Black’s death was amended this month following a $5 million partial settlement with three Maryland towns and several individuals earlier this summer, including former police officers and chiefs.

The family’s federal lawsuit accused police of using excessive force on Anton Black after they chased him and tried to restrain him outside his family’s home in rural Greensboro, Maryland. Officers handcuffed Black and shackled his legs before he stopped breathing.

Black’s death inspired legislative reforms. A state law named after Black expanded public access to records about police disciplinary cases and enacted other reforms, such as newly created police accountability boards.

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An alleged cover-up

On Sept. 15, 2018, Greensboro Police Officer Thomas Webster IV, who had a “documented history of violence and excessive force against Black people,” confronted Black when he was in the midst of a mental health crisis, according to the Black family’s attorneys.

“Officer Webster was aware that Anton was a well-known high school athlete experiencing mental health issues,” the amended complaint said. “However, instead of attempting to help Anton, Webster joined with Chief Gary Manos of the Ridgley Police Department and Officer Dennis Lannon of the Centreville Police Department … as well as a random white bystander dressed in racist attire who Webster deputized, and together the group chased Anton to his home where Webster, without warning, smashed a car window near his head with a police baton, and fired a Taser at him.”

The group of men forced Black to the ground, “pinning his slight frame beneath the collective weight of their bodies,” the lawsuit alleges.

“While immobilized in a face-down position on the ground with Chief Manos’ body and weight upon his back and the other officers and the civilian holding him down, Anton’s pulmonary ventilation was compromised, resulting in cardiac stress,” the lawsuit said. “Even after Anton was handcuffed, the officers ignored the danger they were causing and kept Anton in a prone restraint for approximately six minutes as he struggled to breathe, lost consciousness and suffered cardiac arrest.”

The family’s attorneys determined that Black died “while handcuffed and terrified” from “positional asphyxia as a direct and proximate result of the officers’ excessive force and racial bias.” Jennell Black, Anton’s mother, witnessed the death from the front porch of their home.

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Even as Black died on the ground in front of his home, officers could be heard on video “falsely claiming that Anton was high on marijuana laced with another drug and exhibiting ‘superhuman’ strength.”

“This was the story to the state of Maryland, through the Maryland State Police, the state agency charged with investigating Anton’s death,” the lawsuit claims.

That set in motion an effort to “corroborate the false claim by officers that Anton was on drugs at the time of his death,” according to the lawsuit.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, attorneys argued, “seized on this false claim by law enforcement officials, and pursued it even after their own comprehensive toxicology results confirmed, within days of his death, that Anton did not have controlled substances in his system.”

A second toxicology report, received in January, explicitly said that there were no synthetic cannabinoids in Black’s system, a finding “later confirmed in a follow up telephone call with the lab that such drugs were ‘definitely not there,’ ” the lawsuit said.

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The lawsuit quotes the official report from the medical examiner on Black’s death, which at first said that his “bipolar disorder” was a “significant contributing condition” and that he died due to an “anomalous right coronary artery and myocardial tunneling of the left anterior descending coronary artery.”

In their amended complaint, attorneys emphasized that the former was a mental health condition and the latter was a common condition that would not have caused his death. The same report concluded that Black “might have smoked spice” and that “no evidence was found that restraint by law enforcement directly caused or significantly contributed to the decedent’s death,” according to the filing.

‘Systemic’ issues in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner

Beyond the death of Black in police custody, the coalition of attorneys, anchored by the ACLU of Maryland, argued that there was a systemic dimension to the alleged misconduct by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Sonia Kumar, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said in an interview that a systemic reluctance by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to conclude that in-custody deaths were homicides has prevented public safety officials from correcting policing practices.

“It has masked the extent to which we could have been taking steps to prevent deaths in police custody,” Kumar said.

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Under former Chief Medical Examiner Dr. David Fowler, the attorneys argued in the amended complaint, the office “repeatedly disregarded or misrepresented obvious facts, medical evidence and basic principles of their profession, concealed the truth about police-involved deaths in misleading statements and conclusions cloaked in medical terminology and purported uncertainty.”

Attorneys representing Fowler did not return requests for comment.

Fowler received national notoriety after he testified in 2021 in Hennepin County District Court as an expert witness for former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who murdered George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, on May 25, 2020.

Fowler concluded that Floyd’s cause of death was heart problems and stated that fentanyl and methamphetamine, and possibly car exhaust, were contributing factors. He said he would have classified the manner of death as undetermined instead of homicide.

More than 400 medical experts signed an open letter alleging that Fowler deviated from standard medical practice in the case and called for an investigation into determinations that his office made in cases in which people died in custody. “Our disagreement with Dr. Fowler is not a matter of opinion,” the letter read. “Our disagreement with Dr. Fowler is a matter of ethics.”

The rebuke helped prompt the Maryland Office of the Attorney General to appoint a team to come up with a plan for how to conduct an audit on the office’s autopsy findings. Last month, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh announced that he had commissioned an independent group of forensic pathologists to review the autopsies of about 100 people who died in police custody after reviewing more than 1,300 cases.

Reporter Dylan Segelbaum and the Associated Press contributed to the report.

bconarck@thebaltimorebanner.com