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Anton Black’s family sues police, medical examiner in 2018 death

Ken Ravenell, Baltimore Attorney wtih the city skyline in the background. MF-D 3/22/06.

Baltimore attorney Ken Ravenell announced he filed a federal lawsuit against three Eastern Shore towns and the Maryland medical examiner’s office by Anton Black’s family following his death in 2018 while handcuffed. (File photo)

Anton Black’s family filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against three Eastern Shore towns and the Maryland medical examiner’s office, alleging the unarmed 19-year-old Black man was killed by police and that the slaying was covered up by a forensic pathology report that blamed the death on a congenital heart defect and bipolar disorder.

In their complaint, family members said Black’s 2018 death while handcuffed and prone was eerily similar to George Floyd’s death last spring under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Floyd’s death touched off nationwide protests and calls for police reform, while Black’s death drew far less publicity beyond the towns of Greensboro, Ridgely and Centreville, which had police officers involved in the killing, the family’s attorney, Kenneth Ravenell, said in announcing the lawsuit.

“He (Black) died because those officers held him down” like Floyd, added Ravenell, a Baltimore solo practitioner. “Anton deserves more than publicity. He deserves justice.”

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, alleges the officers’ use of excessive and deadly force violated Black’s constitutional right against unreasonable seizures. The family also claims its constitutional right to legal redress was stalled by the medical examiner’s coverup of the police’s responsibility for Black’s death by falsely “blaming the victim.”

In addition, the family alleges the Greensboro police chief hired officer Thomas Webster IV despite a record of violent, abusive and inappropriate conduct in earlier law-enforcement jobs.

Webster is a named defendant in the lawsuit with then Ridgely Police Chief Dennis Manos and Centreville police officer Dennis Lannon – the three officers who allegedly seized Black on Sept. 15, 2018. Other defendants include former Greensboro Police Chief Michael Petyo for his allegedly negligent hiring of Webster; the state medical examiner’s office; and the towns of Greensboro, Ridgely and Centreville.

The Maryland attorney general’s office, which represents the state medical examiner, declined to comment on the lawsuit Thursday.

Greensboro Mayor Kevin Reichart, Ridgely Commissioner Anthony Casey and Centreville Town Manager Steven Walls did not immediately return telephone messages seeking comment on the lawsuit Thursday afternoon.

The Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission decertified Webster as a police officer in July 2019 after its investigation revealed nearly 30 “use of force “ incidents from Webster’s time in Dover, Delaware, that were not disclosed on his police application in Maryland.

Petyo, who quit his police post during the commission’s investigation of Webster, pleaded guilty in 2019 to misconduct in office for having lied on Webster’s application for certification. Caroline County Circuit Judge Paul M. Bowman sentenced Petyo in January to two years in prison, all suspended, and three years’ supervised probation.

The deadly encounter began when Black had a bipolar episode that endangered no one else but prompted a police response, according to the lawsuit.

“However, instead of attempting to help Anton,” Webster, Manos and Lannon “chased Anton to his home, smashed a car window near his head, fired a TASER at him, and then forced him to the ground, pinning his slight frame beneath the collective weight of their bodies,” the complaint stated. “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.”

Black ultimately died from positional asphyxia, according to the complaint. However, the state medical examiner office attributed Black’s death to a congenital heart defect and his mental health issues.

That deliberately erroneous finding led to Caroline County State’s Attorney Joseph Riley’s decision in January 2019 not to prosecute the officers for homicide, the complaint stated.

The family alleges in the complaint that the state medical examiner “covered up and obscured police responsibility for Anton Black’s death, by falsely attributing the cause of death to a heart attack, bipolar disorder and/or other natural causes, thereby ‘blaming the victim’ for his own death and obscuring official responsibility, resulting in significant impairment and denial of the (family’s) rights to seek legal redress” under the federal and Maryland constitutions.

The case is docketed at the U.S. District Court in Baltimore as Jennell Black et al. v. Thomas Webster IV et al., No. 1:20-cv-03644-CCB.

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