The family of Anton Black has filed a federal lawsuit charging wrongful death, excessive force, battery, and other counts in the teen’s Sept. 15, 2018, death while being restrained by police officers.
Black, 19, died after being chased and pinned to the ground just outside his mother’s home.
Antone Black, father of Anton Black, said in a Thursday press release: “I am devastated. I’m shook up every time I pass by where Anton lived. My son was the heart of our family. Anton had his whole life ahead of him. He was an athlete, a model, he was in college, and he dreamed of being an actor. They took all that away from him, from us, and it hurts me every day.”
Jennell Black, Anton’s mother, said in the statement: “The memory of Anton being murdered in front of me while he pleaded for his life was too much. I cry all the time. I had to pass by my son’s grave every day and I had to move away.”
Black, a former champion athlete at North Caroline High School, an aspiring model and actor, and an expectant father, was a student at Wesley College in Dover.
Black’s family and the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black filed the lawsuit Thursday in federal district court in Baltimore, claiming the officers’ actions caused Black’s death as a result of positional asphyxiation.
The lawsuit names as defendants:
• Thomas Webster IV, then a Greensboro police officer;
• Michael Petyo, then the Greensboro police chief;
• Ridgely Police Chief Gary Manos;
• Centreville Police Officer Dennis Lannon;
• the towns of Greensboro, Ridgely, and Centreville; and
• the state medical examiner’s office, the assistant medical examiner who conducted Black’s autopsy, and the former and current chief medical examiners.
The lawsuit claims Webster was improperly hired and trained and failed to follow the police department’s handbook concerning de-escalation in a mental health crisis.
The case also includes a count of civil conspiracy, claiming the three officers, “among other unnamed police and emergency services personnel, conferred together immediately following Anton’s death and began constructing a false narrative of use of drugs (‘spice’) and abnormal strength to minimize and try to justify their prolonged, unconstitutional restraint of Anton by multiple officers applying direct pressure to his torso and binding his legs in ways that prevented him from breathing. In turn, they fed this narrative to the Maryland State Police.
“The State of Maryland, through the Maryland State Police, relied upon and perpetuated this false narrative in their purported ‘investigation’ into Anton’s death, disregarding contrary evidence plainly available on video Body Worn Camera footage showing that Anton was restrained face down by multiple officers, on his stomach with his knees bent back, for approximately five minutes after he had been handcuffed.
“Defendants Petyo, Town of Greensboro, Town of Ridgely and Town of Centreville likewise relied upon and perpetuated the individual officers’ false narrative about the police practices causing Anton’s death, using this misinformation and disregarding contrary evidence plainly available on video Body Worn Camera footage, to decline to investigate and discipline the involved officers.
“Defendant Russell Alexander (the assistant medical examiner who conducted Black’s autopsy) conferred, on behalf of the State of Maryland, with MSP investigators in a manner suggesting a mutual desire to avoid findings of police misconduct by the Medical Examiner in connection with Anton’s death. The Medical Examiner’s autopsy achieved this aim by departing from basic reasonable standards of forensic pathology and falsely absolving Defendant officers of actual or criminal responsibility, thus enabling Defendant officers to evade criminal charges for their unlawful conduct and forcing Plaintiffs to expend significant resources to disprove the Medical Examiner’s misrepresentations in order to gain access to legal redress.
“Defendants’ unlawful conspiracy harmed the Plaintiffs by exacerbating their severe mental anguish and emotional distress, by thwarting their access to civil justice and their efforts to ensure official accountability for Anton’s wrongful death as guaranteed by Articles 19 and 24 (of the Maryland Declaration of Rights).”
In addition to compensatory damages of more than $75,000, the lawsuit seeks:
• a permanent injunction that (i) prohibits Defendants, their officers, agents, employees, and successors from engaging in the discriminatory, unconstitutional and abusive practices complained of herein, and (ii) imposes a prohibition of similar conduct in the future;
• three-year monitoring of all law enforcement activity by all Defendants to prevent any further abusive and racially discriminatory practices;
• appropriate punitive damages, against Defendants in their individual capacities, in an amount to be proven at trial that would punish Defendants for their knowing, intentional, willful, and reckless disregard of clearly established federal constitutional and statutory rights as alleged herein and enter any and all injunctive decrees and relief necessary to effectively prevent Defendants from engaging in similar unlawful misconduct in the future; and
• reasonable attorneys’ fees, expert witness fees and costs.
Ken Ravenell of Ravenell Law, one of the attorneys representing Black’s family, said in a press release: “It is staggering how much was done wrong in this case that was improper, illegal, unethical and disgraceful. But today we took a bold step towards justice for Anton Black and against the police officers who took his life and also against those who were complicit in covering up the injustice. We are proud to have been chosen by Anton’s family to lead this fight and to partner with the ACLU of Maryland in this historic collaboration.”
René C. Swafford, another attorney for the family, said, “What happened to Anton could happen to any Black child or adult. 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. There was more public outcry over water bills than this life lost.”
Richard Potter of the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black said: “Again, this is another classic case of white supremacy at its best. Officer Webster gets a second chance at his career. Anton doesn’t get a second chance at life. No person is above the law and all those involved in this senseless death of this prominent young African American male should be brought to justice. Anton did not deserve to die in the manner that he did, however he did deserve to still be alive and enjoy those monumental experiences with his daughter, as well as being a student at Wesley College pursuing his degree in Criminal Justice. We as a coalition recognize that justice delayed is not justice denied.”
Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland, which is representing the Coalition, said: “There must be justice for Anton Black. Whether it happens on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, in Baltimore or Minneapolis, we must put a stop to the brutal taking of Black lives by police, and do everything in our power to strip away and dismantle the structures of white supremacy that allow law enforcement to escape accountability and thwart justice time and again.”
Anton Black’s family is represented by Ravenell, Swafford, Leslie Hershfield, and Tomeka Church. The Coalition for Justice for Anton Black is represented by ACLU of Maryland Senior Staff Attorney Sonia Kumar and Jeon.
According to the lawsuit:
“Two years before George Floyd died after being restrained and pinned down by police, 19- year-old Anton Black … was killed by three white law enforcement officials and a white civilian in a chillingly similar manner on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. This lawsuit arises from the wrongful death of Anton Black at the hands of officers from three different police departments on September 15, 2018, and the ensuing efforts by public officials to protect the officers involved from the consequences of their excessive use of force against a Black teenager.
“On September 15, 2018, Thomas Webster IV, an officer hired by Defendant Michael Petyo and employed by the Greensboro Police Department (hereafter “Greensboro”), despite a documented history of violence and excessive force against Black residents, confronted Anton while he was in the midst of a mental health crisis. Officer Webster (“Webster”) was aware that Anton was a high school athlete experiencing mental health issues. However, instead of attempting to help Anton, Webster, along with Chief Gary Manos of the Ridgley Police Department and Officer Dennis Lannon of the Centreville Police Department, 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. While immobilized in a face-down position on the ground with Chief Manos’ body and weight upon his back and the other officers and a civilian assisting in holding him down, Anton’s pulmonary ventilation was compromised, resulting in cardiac stress. 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. Anton, 19, while handcuffed and terrified, died from positional asphyxia as a direct and proximate result of the officers’ excessive force and racial bias, as well as the Town of Greensboro and Defendant Petyo’s knowingly hiring of an officer with a proclivity for violence against Black civilians; the State of Maryland’s knowing certification of an officer who had neither the character nor the temperament for employment as a police officer; the failure of all three towns to adequately screen, train and supervise their officers; Officer Webster’s unjustified and unconscionable escalation of a mental health crisis into a fatal confrontation; and the excessive force used by the officers, specifically including Chief Manos. Sadly, Anton’s mother witnessed her son’s death on the front porch of her home.
“Even as he died, officers began developing the false story they would use to defend their actions — falsely claiming that Anton was high on marijuana laced with another drug and exhibiting ‘superhuman’ strength. This was the story the officers fed to the Maryland State Police, the state agency charged with investigating Anton’s death, which used its authority to hunt for evidence to smear Anton and justify his killing by police. In the weeks and months that followed, Anton’s family and Plaintiff Coalition for Justice for Anton Black were forced to battle public officials to gain basic access to the body camera footage of his death and to the autopsy findings — which were not released until Maryland Governor Larry Hogan personally intervened.
“Meanwhile, the State of Maryland, through a Maryland State Police (“MSP”) ‘investigation’ and with the Office of the Medical Examiner (“ME”), collaborated with the officers who killed Anton to absolve the officers and the State government of responsibility. When the State finally released its autopsy findings, officials outrageously contended that Anton’s bipolar disorder was a contributing cause of death, as opposed to the 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. Both the ME’s obfuscation of the obvious cause of death — prolonged restraint that prevented Anton from breathing — as well as the MSP report downplaying the role of police in Anton’s killing, were used to justify the State’s Attorney’s decision not to pursue criminal charges against the officers and to decline to convene a grand jury. As a result, Defendants collectively have escaped responsibility for Anton’s death, misrepresenting his killing as an “accident” for which no person or entity is accountable.
“Anton Black died at the age of 19 as a direct and proximate result of the Town of Greensboro and Defendant Petyo knowingly hiring of an officer with a proclivity for violence against Black civilians; the State of Maryland’s knowing certification of an officer who had neither the character nor the temperament for employment as a police officer; the failure of all three towns to adequately train and supervise their officers; Officer Webster’s unjustified and unconscionable escalation of a mental health crisis into a fatal confrontation; and the excessive force used by the officers, specifically including Chief Manos,” the suit claims. “Worse still, Anton’s death has gone unpunished because the very entities sanctioned to avenge his death conspired together to instead protect police and public officials, and evade accountability, risking future lives.”Anton Black federal lawsuit
Letters to Editor
Gren Whitman says
Thanks for this excellent reporting!
Going into federal court is likely the only way Anton Black’s family will be able to finally establish the facts and to obtain justice.
The suit has been filed against two local police chiefs and two officers involved, the state medical examiner, and the three towns where the officers served, Greensboro, Ridgely, and Centreville.
Why Ridgely’s police chief plus a police officer from Centreville were involved is murky, as well as why the police permitted a civilian to join in.
Extensive press coverage of this incident and its aftermath can be Googled.