Lawyers Say That Maryland Kept Mislabeling Deaths in Police Custody

Maryland Kept Mislabeling Deaths in Police Custody: Anton Black’s mother, Jennell, goes through a box of his things at their house in Greensboro, Maryland. The family’s attorneys claim the medical examiner in Maryland often misclassifies fatalities that occur in police custody, like Black’s.

Defense Attorneys Claim Maryland Falsely Labeled Police Custody Deaths

Lawyers suing the state medical examiner’s office for Anton Black’s 2018 death said this week that much fewer fatalities in police custody are labeled murders than they should be. Black’s family settled with most defendants in a wrongful death complaint last summer but continues to question the medical examiner’s office.

The office declared Black’s death accidental, citing stress from his conflict with the police, mental condition, and heart concerns. Family lawyers contrasted this conclusion with the “but-for” premise. According to a 2002 handbook by the National Association of Medical Examiners, death is unnatural if it wouldn’t have happened “but for” an unnatural event.

The attorneys analyzed 57 examples where persons died in police custody in prospective restraint circumstances and found that 88% were not deemed murderers, even when the decedent had been Tased, pepper sprayed, subject to police baton blows prone restraint or other uses of force.

“The State is required to tell us the truth,” an ACLU of Maryland lawyer stated. Instead, it mislead Marylanders for decades by stating cops didn’t cause custodial fatalities.

The prestige of the medical examiner’s office rose after its previous chief, David Fowler, testified that George Floyd’s death was of “undetermined” reasons, tying it to heart illness and drug usage rather than his oxygen being cut off by a police officer’s knee. Last month, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) requested a review of 100 autopsies done during Fowler’s tenure on persons who died in police custody. Fowler’s evidence spurred the 17-year examination, from 2002 to 2019.

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Maryland Kept Mislabeling Deaths in Police Custody
Black died after being handcuffed and shackled face-down. His autopsy showed no indication that police restraint caused or contributed to his death. His case was uncharged. According to the NAME guidance, deaths caused by police positional restraint, chokeholds, or other subduing techniques may be classed as a homicide. The handbook defines homicide as a death caused by “another’s a volitional act,” not criminal intent.

Thursday’s email to Fowler went unanswered. He wrote in an email last month, “I’m proud of my 17 years as Maryland’s Chief Medical Examiner, and any objective examination would affirm that the Office met or surpassed all relevant professional standards.”

John Stash, Maryland’s temporary chief medical examiner, forwarded comments to Department of Health spokesman Chase Cook, who said, “We have no comment on litigation.” Three municipalities on Maryland’s Eastern Shore settled their share of the case in August, agreeing to compensate Black’s family $5 million and modify policing to prevent future killings. Last year, Maryland lawmakers enacted a package of accountability laws in Black’s memory that demands more disclosure of public wrongdoing records.

The complaint, which seeks punitive damages and new procedures at the medical examiner’s office, accuses the agency of labeling the death “utterly incorrectly and in defiance of medical evidence and professional norms.” The medical examiner’s office pushed a police narrative that Black was on drugs despite two toxicology findings.

Advocates believe Black’s death is disturbingly similar to Floyd’s, who died when a Minneapolis officer pushed his knee into his neck. Floyd’s killing generated anger and forced a reckoning with racism and policing. The attorney general’s probe began with 1,300 autopsies, but a panel named by Frosh has narrowed the focus to 100 deaths that “occurred during or shortly after the decedent was physically restrained” and for which no obvious medical cause of death, such as a knife wound, was discerned during the autopsy.

The attorney general’s office has not named the 100 instances, but the ACLU attorneys constructed their pool of 57 cases out of 1,300 using news reports and medical examiner press releases.

The complaint claims a trend of misclassified instances is “grave.” Medical examiner findings “dictate how police understand their actions, how prosecutors decide whether to prosecute, whether decedents and their families are treated as victims, the hurdles survivors must clear to obtain relief, the scope of any given public health crisis, and how our society determines which deaths can be prevented.”

“Black Marylanders and those with disabilities have borne the brunt of these failings,” the complaint says.

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