Maryland officials approve settlement to reform autopsy process after teen's 2018 in-custody death

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Maryland officials approved a settlement Wednesday that reforms the process for conducting autopsies on people killed in police custody, a move that follows the 2018 death of a Black man who died after a struggle with an officer.

The settlement ends litigation relating to how the medical examiner's office performed an autopsy for Anton Black, a 19-year-old who died in police custody on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

The state has agreed to adopt a policy that explicitly addresses how medical examiners handle in-custody deaths, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland announced in a news release. It would apply to all deaths involving law enforcement restraint, including those that occur in jails, prisons and juvenile facilities.

“This landmark settlement with the Maryland Medical Examiner – the first of its kind ever in Maryland – will bring concrete changes to ensure that deaths in law enforcement custody are not given special treatment that too often favors the narratives and interests of police over those of decedents and their families,” the ACLU said.

The policy incorporates guidelines of the National Association of Medical Examiners for determining how such deaths are investigated and how examiners determine cause. The standards are clear that whenever a person would not have died “but for” the intentional conduct of another, that death is a homicide, the ACLU said.

The policy prohibits improper law enforcement influence on an autopsy by requiring medical examiners to consider investigative information independently and objectively in all cases. Medical examiners must document all sources of initial investigative information, as well as disclose if any law enforcement or other personnel is present for an autopsy, the ACLU said.

The medical examiner’s office also will be required to provide families who receive autopsy reports with notice of their rights to seek correction and a review of the 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.”

The settlement approved by the state’s Board of Public Works, which is chaired by Gov. Wes Moore, also provides $100,000 to Black’s family and $135,000 for attorneys’ fees for the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black.

The three-member Board of Public Works approved the settlement without comment during a regularly scheduled meeting. The settlement resolves all claims against the state's forensic pathologists, according to board records.

“The Governor 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,” the governor's office said in a statement after the meeting.

The autopsy found that Black died of sudden cardiac arrest, listing stress associated with the struggle with police as a factor that contributed, but also noting that there was no evidence that the officers’ restraint asphyxiated Black. But an expert for the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins University, concluded that asphyxiation was the cause of Black’s death.

The autopsy was performed several months before Dr. David Fowler resigned from leading the medical examiner’s office. Soon after his departure, Fowler would come under intense scrutiny for his testimony attributing George Floyd’s death in 2020 to a heart rhythm problem rather than a lack of oxygen from being restrained. Fowler’s controversial testimony, which did not sway the Minneapolis jury that ultimately convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin of murder and manslaughter, prompted a statewide audit of in-custody death investigations the Maryland office had performed under his leadership.

A separate $5 million settlement was reached last year for a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Black's relatives, but it did not include the claims against the medical examiner's office.

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, in 2018. Officers handcuffed Black and shackled his legs before he stopped breathing.

Black’s death fueled calls for an independent investigation and inspired legislative reforms. A state law named after Black expanded public access to records about police disciplinary cases.

This year, a new law gave the state's attorney general independent authority to bring criminal charges against police officers after investigating deaths when officers are involved.