Chauvin Defense Witness Faces Lawsuit of His Own Over Death of Black Teenager in Police Custody

Nearly two years before George Floyd was pinned under the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Anton Black was pinned to the ground by police outside his home in Greensboro, Maryland.

On September 15, 2018, body camera footage captured the 19-year-old struggling under the weight of multiple officers, laboring to breathe and crying out for his mother.

Black’s mother watched her son die in front of her. He used his last breaths to shout “I love you.”

Dr. David Fowler, who was the chief medical examiner of Maryland for nearly two decades, classified Black’s death as an accident. Now, he is an expert witness for Chauvin’s defense and is expected to offer testimony as to how Floyd died last year.

The forensic pathologist, who resigned from Maryland’s medical examiner office in 2019, is one of several parties being sued by the Black family for wrongful death and civil rights violations. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in December, alleges that Fowler “covered up and obscured police responsibility for Anton Black’s death.”

The determination in Black’s case was part of a broader pattern of the medical examiner’s office relying on police narratives in cases involving deaths in custody, the complaint on behalf of the Black family argues. Between 2013 and 2019, 30 percent of deaths involving a law enforcement officer reviewed by Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner were classified as “accidents,” “undetermined,” or due to “natural causes,” according to data released by the state.

The office’s findings in at least two of those cases were later disputed by independent forensic investigators who concluded that the deaths were homicides. Experts interviewed by The Intercept said Black’s death also fit the definition of a homicide per the National Association of Medical Examiners — an organization Fowler was once president of.

“In my opinion, the NAME guidelines for manner-of-death determination would indicate that Black’s death should have been called a homicide because of the physical involvement of others in the struggle,” Dr. Judy Melinek, a board-certified forensic pathologist and author unaffiliated with either case, wrote in an email.

Fowler declined to comment for this story, citing his role as an expert witness in the ongoing case against Chauvin.

Sonia Kumar, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland who represents Black’s family, called Fowler’s involvement in the Chauvin case “troubling” and “disturbing.”

“The flawed practices that have been used in Maryland to prevent police accountability and accurate assessment of deaths in police custody are now being exported to the murder of George Floyd and a broader national stage,” she said.

Dr. David Fowler, Maryland’s former chief medical examiner, on Oct. 1, 2008.

Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Chillingly Similar

Long before the Chauvin trial began, the parallels between the deaths of Floyd and Black were clear to those close to the Anton Black case. The lawsuit on behalf of Black’s family describes the cases as “chillingly similar.”

Both men were unarmed. Both were pinned to the ground by multiple officers and said they were afraid of dying at the hands of police. Both cried out for their mothers. And both were ignored until it was too late.

“To me, the same thing that happened to George Floyd already happened to Anton Black. They held him down, they suffocated him, and they didn’t let him up,” said Antone Black Sr., Anton’s father. “I felt like they took his life and they covered it up.”

Prior to his death, Black ran from police while experiencing a mental health episode. Officers said they thought he was trying to kidnap a young boy he was with, who turned out to be Black’s younger cousin. Black was found hiding in a car outside his family home. Greensboro police officer Thomas Webster IV smashed the car window and tased him, as seen in footage from Webster’s body camera. Multiple police officers then struggled with Black before pinning him to the ground.

The autopsies of both Floyd and Black revealed multiple blunt force trauma injuries and cited a loss of heart function as a cause of death. The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, in opening statements Monday, noted that Floyd was put into a “prone position.” He was pinned flat on his chest and unable to expand his lungs to take in oxygen. Body camera footage showed Black in the same position as officers held him down with their body weight.

In opening statements at Chauvin’s trial, the prosecution told jurors that Floyd lived with a heart condition and a drug addiction, but it was the encounter with Chauvin that ended his life.

While Minnesota’s Hennepin County medical examiner ruled Floyd’s death a homicide, Fowler’s office classified Black’s death as an “accident.”

Police involved in Black’s arrest mentioned his immense strength and speculated that he was on drugs, a claim repeated by the Maryland medical examiner’s office. “Reportedly, he may have recently smoked spice,” the autopsy reads, referring to synthetic marijuana. The toxicology report later showed that no drugs were found in Black’s system, but it was not made public for four months.

The Black family and community members still question why it took so long for them to learn how Anton died. Fowler’s office only released the autopsy when Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan stepped in, according to reporting by Maryland Matters.

“The report seemed to look at Anton’s body to try to blame him in his own death,” Kumar, the ACLU attorney, said. She suggested that Fowler’s testimony in defense of Chauvin could similarly seek to shift responsibility away from law enforcement. “The medical examiner is refusing to acknowledge the role of police restraint and now taking that same sort of logic and trying to apply it to the death of Mr. Floyd.”

In this Jan. 28, 2019, photo, Brandon Jackson, from far left, Kym Lofland, Antone Black, Monique Sorrell and LaToya Holley stand on a ramp where a struggle among their family member Anton Black and three police officers and a civilian occurred before his death outside the home in Greensboro, Md. The family isn't satisfied by the conclusions of a county prosecutor, who isn't pursuing criminal charges in Black's death, or the medical examiner who ruled it accidental. They're calling for a federal investigation and appealing for help from Gov. Larry Hogan, who already has expressed a personal interest in the case. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Brandon Jackson, far left, Kym Lofland, Antone Black Sr., Monique Sorrell, and LaToya Holley stand on the ramp at their home where Anton Black died in police custody in Greensboro, Md., Jan. 28, 2019.

Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP

Defining Homicide

As is the case with other forensic practitioners, medical examiners work closely with law enforcement, which can leave them vulnerable to bias. “The entire discipline is built on a cooperative relationship between agencies,” Melinek said. “In most cases, police reports are necessary. … But in cases of in-custody deaths or officer-involved shootings, there is an inherent conflict of interest if we rely exclusively on the police reports to tell us what happened.”

“That is why it is so important that medical examiners and coroners have an independent capacity to perform death investigations and have access to evidence such as body camera videos and eyewitness statements that might contradict the police narrative,” Melinek said.

“In cases of in-custody deaths or officer-involved shootings, there is an inherent conflict of interest if we rely exclusively on the police reports to tell us what happened.”

Justin Feldman, an epidemiologist researching social inequality and state violence at Harvard University, said the medical definition of homicide is about intentional force, not intentional killing. “If the force was intentional, whether or not you wanted it to cause death, it should be ruled a homicide,” he said.

“Intentional force” includes blunt force trauma, chokeholds, and the prone position, as well as the use of stun guns like Tasers. Often, Feldman said, the debate within forensics about when to classify a death as a homicide can be subject to outside pressure.

“Much of those debates are influenced by people who have received funding by Axon, who makes Tasers, or have received funding by city governments facing lawsuits,” Feldman said. “They will claim positional asphyxia does not really exist.”

Between 2009 and early 2016, 11 people in Maryland died following encounters in which police used Tasers, according to reporting from the Baltimore Sun. Fowler’s office classified all but one of these deaths as undetermined, accidental, or due to natural causes.

In 2014, police tased 19-year-old George Vonn King five times before he fell into a coma and died. His death was reported as being due to natural causes.

In 2015, DeOntre Dorsey had a grand mal seizure and drove his car off the road. Paramedics arrived and got him out of the car. While Dorsey was seizing on the ground, a police officer told him to put his hands behind his back. As he regained some “semblance of control,” according to a lawsuit filed by his estate, the officer tased him and delivered at least five electric shocks to his body while commanding him to stop flailing. Dorsey went into cardiac arrest and never regained consciousness, dying nine months later. Fowler’s office said the cause of death was undetermined.

Black was also tased over the course of 10 minutes before he fell unconscious and died.

The conclusions of Fowler’s office have been contested by independent investigations in other cases.

In 2016, Tawon Boyd, a 21-year-old Black man, called 911 for help. When officers showed up and Boyd was acting erratically, they punched him in the face and restrained him in a prone position, according to the police report. Medics then administered an antipsychotic medication. He quickly became unresponsive and died three days later. No officers had body cameras.

Fowler’s office cited drug use and “excited delirium,” a diagnosis that is not accepted by multiple top medical boards, as factors leading to Boyd’s cardiac arrest. His death was classified as an accident.

Dr. Francisco Diaz, an independent pathologist who served as an expert in a civil rights suit filed by Boyd’s family, later concluded that Boyd “died as result of asphyxia after restraint.”

“No, don’t let them downplay. They did the same thing to my brother.”

Tyrone West’s death in 2013 was classified by Fowler’s office as “undetermined.” During an extended “scuffle” in 90-plus degree weather, police beat 44-year-old West with batons and kicked him in the head, according to witness statements. They eventually pinned him down in a prone restraint position similar to that of Black and Floyd. West’s breathing became labored and he later died. At least one witness said police tased West, though reports are conflicting.

As with Black, Fowler’s office blamed West’s death on a heart abnormality, writing that it was “complicated by dehydration during police restraint.”

Two independent forensic investigations later concluded that West died of asphyxiation. “The main cause of death is the fact that he was restrained in such a way that he was unable to breathe,” wrote Dr. William Manion, a forensic pathologist who conducted the first independent investigation.

West’s sister, Tawanda Jones, said she did not receive the autopsy from Fowler’s office for nearly five months and felt like information was being deliberately withheld. The office said the delay was because of an ongoing criminal investigation.

After George Floyd’s death, Jones reached out to Floyd’s brother in Minnesota. “It was like … the medical examiner’s office there was trying to downplay stuff,” Jones said, referring to the autopsy that mentioned Floyd’s heart condition and drug use as contributing factors in his death. “I said, ‘No, don’t let them downplay. They did the same thing to my brother.’”

A picture of George Floyd hangs on a fence outside the Hennepin County Government Center, Tuesday, March 30, 2021, in Minneapolis where the trial for former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin continues. Chauvin is charged with murder in the death of Floyd during an arrest last May in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

An illustrated poster of George Floyd hangs on a fence outside the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis on March 30, 2021.

Photo: Jim Mone/AP

A Future Cut Short

When the video of Floyd under Chauvin’s knee surfaced on social media, the world came to a reckoning. Protests erupted in Minneapolis and spread worldwide.

There was no such reckoning for Anton Black.

Freelance reporter Glynis Kazanjian first saw Black’s name in a Washington Post op-ed in January 2019, more than four months after he died.

The existing local coverage of him, she said, faded in the months between his death and January, when the autopsy was released. Her anger at the lack of attention launched reporting that sparked an internal police investigation into Black’s death. No charges were pursued for the officers involved.

“I had a 19-year-old son at that time,” Kazanjian said. “What if it had been him?”

As Black’s story gained traction statewide, a bill made its way through Maryland’s legislature — Anton’s Law — to open up police disciplinary and complaint records to the public. The bill recently passed the state Senate, but Anton’s father said that justice has yet to be served for his son, and he mourns the story of Black’s life that was cut short.

“They took my son’s voice, so I try to speak on his behalf,” Antone Black Sr. said.

Anton was a star athlete and “one of the fastest boys in Maryland,” Antone Black Sr. said. He was a high school track champion and played football and basketball.

Fowler’s office said that a heart condition, myocardial tunneling, and bipolar disorder led to sudden cardiac arrest. The autopsy states that the stress of the struggle with officers, but not their restraint, killed him.

“In what universe does a psychiatric condition cause death?” Kumar said.

In this Jan. 28, 2019, photo, pictures of Anton Black decorate a collage in his family's home in Greensboro, Md. Black, 19, died after a struggle with three officers and a civilian outside the home in September 2018. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Photos of Anton Black decorate his family’s home in Greensboro, Md., on Jan. 28, 2019.

Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP

Black studied modeling and acting. After he walked New York Fashion Week, event organizers were searching for him the week of his death to invite him to walk in Milan, Italy.

He also studied criminology at Wesley College in Delaware, which was inspired by the mentorship of a former local police chief, according to his father. Black was two months away from being a father himself. His child would never know him.

According to court documents, Black was likely experiencing a manic episode at the time of his arrest. The diagnosis of bipolar disorder was recent, and Black had been admitted involuntarily to a hospital for treatment.

He was released 10 days prior to his death, according to court documents, and was “still learning how to manage his severe bipolar disorder.” Despite prior knowledge of Black’s mental illness, the lawsuit on behalf of his family notes, police officers did not follow de-escalation protocol. Black’s mental health crisis would later be blamed by Fowler’s office for his death.

The timing of Fowler’s witness testimony at Chauvin’s trial remains unclear.

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Samantha Hendrickson | Radio Free (2021-04-13T07:34:43+00:00) » Chauvin Defense Witness Faces Lawsuit of His Own Over Death of Black Teenager in Police Custody. Retrieved from https://www.radiofree.org/2021/04/04/chauvin-defense-witness-faces-lawsuit-of-his-own-over-death-of-black-teenager-in-police-custody/.
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» Chauvin Defense Witness Faces Lawsuit of His Own Over Death of Black Teenager in Police Custody | Samantha Hendrickson | Radio Free | https://www.radiofree.org/2021/04/04/chauvin-defense-witness-faces-lawsuit-of-his-own-over-death-of-black-teenager-in-police-custody/ | 2021-04-13T07:34:43+00:00
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