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The family of Anton Black, the Black Eastern Shore teenager who died after being chased and roughly handled by police in 2018, filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit Thursday against several government agencies.
The suit, filed by the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black and members of Black’s family, and backed by the Maryland chapter of the ACLU, alleges collusion, cover-up and wrongful death, and targets the state medical examiner’s office and local police officials.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court of Baltimore.
The defendants include: the State of Maryland Office of the Medical Examiner; former Maryland chief medical examiner David Fowler; interim chief medical examiner Pamela E. Southall; assistant medical examiner Russell Alexander; the towns of Greensboro, Ridgely and Centreville; former Greensboro police Chief Michael Petyo; former Greensboro police officer Thomas Webster IV; Ridgely police Chief Gary Manos; and Centreville police officer Dennis Lannon.
Black died in police custody on Sept. 15, 2018 in Greensboro, following a struggle with three white police officers and a white civilian in front of his mother on a ramp leading to the front door of her residence.
Black’s family claims excessive force and racial bias led to their son’s death by “positional asphyxiation,” and allege that a cover-up followed involving the state medical examiner and police personnel from the Eastern Shore towns of Greensboro, Ridgley and Centreville.
“I’ve been all over the United States and I’ve seen a lot of things. I’ve never seen anything so brutal as to what they did to my child,” said Black’s father, Antone Black, during a virtual news conference Thursday. “They took his life….This is a good kid. He had big dreams. He didn’t do anything wrong. My child didn’t have a knife, he didn’t have a gun. Didn’t have a stick or brick. They still ran at him like he was a runaway slave. I want everybody to know this was one of the best children that you had.”
In their suit, the plaintiffs seek a minimum of $75,000 in compensatory damages from each of the named defendants, plus an unspecific request of punitive damages, along with policy reforms designed to limit the unbridled authority of law enforcement agencies.
In a statement, the ACLU called the case “a clear example of how white supremacy functions to deny accountability for misconduct and racial bias.”
The civil rights organization also addressed what it characterized as the illegal hiring of Webster, a former Dover, Delaware, cop who was expelled from that agency for a documented history of violence against another Black suspect in his custody and the town’s concerns over his hiring.
“[T]he State of Maryland again utterly failed Anton, his family and his community, when the Office of the Medical Examiner, relying in part on police narratives that minimized the nature and severity of police restraint of Anton, falsely claimed that Anton’s death was an accident resulting from natural causes,” the ACLU said in its statement. “Bizarrely, the Medical Examiner contended that Anton’s bipolar disorder, a psychiatric illness, was a ‘significant’ contributing cause of death, but not law enforcement officers’ brutal actions in chasing, Tasing, and pinning Anton down under hundreds of pounds of weight for six minutes until he lost consciousness and stopped breathing.”
The ACLU called the medical examiner’s conclusions “false,” claiming the narrative allowed police officials to deflect accountability.
“What happened to Anton could happen to any Black child or adult,” Rene Swafford, an attorney from Caroline County on Black’s legal team, said in a statement. “The implications of the action of the Medical Examiner are far reaching. Deliberately substituting what Anton died with, instead of what he died from, as his cause of death, sends the community an undeniable message that they won’t convict white officers that assault Black people.”
Swafford said Black’s death was a homicide.
“We submit to you that but for the use of excessive force by police in pursuing and restraining him, Anton would be alive today,” she said. “The cause of death in this case is positional asphyxiation. The manner of Anton’s death was a homicide.”
Black’s family compared their case to the 2020 death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died during a police stop after a Minneapolis police officer kept his knee wedged in Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes until his death, while other officers stood by.
The ACLU statement details the plaintiffs’ perspective:
Thomas Webster IV, who is white, was hired by Greensboro Police Chief Michael Petyo, also white, despite a documented history of violence and excessive force against Black residents. In fact, 19-year-old Anton Black had told his Mom he was worried about how Webster would treat community members. On September 15, 2018, Officer Webster, who knew that Anton was a high school athlete experiencing mental health issues, nonetheless aggressively confronted Anton while he was in the midst of a mental health crisis. Instead of trying to help Anton, Webster, along with several other white men, including Chief Gary Manos of the Ridgley Police Department and Officer Dennis Lannon of the Centreville Police Department, and a white civilian they inexplicably pulled in, violently escalated the situation, chasing Anton to his home, smashing a car window near his head, firing a TASER at him, and then forcing him to the ground, pinning his slight frame beneath the collective weight of their bodies. For six minutes, and several minutes after Anton was handcuffed, Chief Manos, the other white officers, and the white civilian wearing a Confederate flag helmet held Anton down with his face down on the ground and his legs bent back towards the sky as he struggled to breathe, lost consciousness and died. Anton, while handcuffed and terrified, cried and pleaded with police to no avail. Anton eventually died from positional asphyxia, a well-known risk of the prolonged restraint used against him.
Members of Black’s families and their supporters appeared together at the virtual news conference announcing the lawsuit.
“There must be justice for Anton Black,” said Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland. “The excessive force from three white officers and a white civilian wearing a Confederate flag helmet that killed a Black teenager who did nothing wrong and needed help instead of brutality is unacceptable.”
Black’s sister, LaToya Holley, who has been on a team spearheading legal efforts in her brother’s case, said she will never let the public forget Black.
“We want everyone involved to have their day in court,” Holley said. “We also want to bring to light what continues to happen through the Black community. As we’ve seen, it didn’t stop with Anton. It continues to go on, and there is a blatant disregard in most places as to what is going on and how these killings are affecting not only family members, but communities as well.”
This story will be updated.
Glynis Kazanjian is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.