When the video of George Floyd gasping for air under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin emerged last year, it told a story that was painfully familiar to Anton Black’s family.
Then came Floyd’s death last year, another video of a Black man being held down by police and dying. The cases, Black’s family said in a court filing, were “chillingly similar.” Now they are connected in another way: Among the experts Chauvin’s defense called this week was the former Maryland medical examiner who deemed Black’s death an accident, a determination his family pilloried in a federal lawsuit filed in December.
The testimony Wednesday from David Fowler, who was Maryland’s chief medical examiner until 2019, comes at a pivotal moment in Chauvin’s murder trial. His defense has argued that Floyd was killed not by Chauvin’s knee, but by drug use and his poor health.
What Fowler said could prove crucial for Chauvin’s defense, which has weathered two weeks of damaging and emotional testimony, including from top Minneapolis police officials criticizing their former colleague, and launched its case this week. Chauvin’s defense is hoping to sway jurors before they are expected to begin deliberating next week.
During his hours-long testimony, Fowler contradicted experts called by the prosecution, linking Floyd’s death to heart disease and drug use rather than to his oxygen being cut off while pinned beneath Chauvin’s knee for more than nine minutes.
Fowler also broke with the Hennepin County medical examiner, who declared Floyd’s death a homicide, by deeming the manner of death as “undetermined.”
Attempts to reach Fowler for this story were unsuccessful. Michael Welner, a doctor and associate of Fowler, said the former medical examiner would not be speaking about the case since he would be testifying.
When Fowler retired in 2019 after nearly two decades as Maryland’s top medical examiner, people he had worked with praised him in interviews with the Baltimore Sun. In an email, Welner called Fowler “among the most respected forensic pathologists in America.”
Welner works with Fowler as part of a group called the Forensic Panel, which he described as a “forensic medicine and behavioral science practice that examines questions in different litigation.” He declined to discuss the Chauvin case in any capacity because of the group’s involvement in it. Prosecutors say the group submitted an “expert report” to Chauvin’s defense team, with Fowler as the primary author, though it has not been publicly released. In court, Fowler testified that he was one of 14 doctors, including eight forensic pathologists, who collaborated on the report.
Black’s family still associates Fowler with the 19-year-old who died in Greensboro, Md.
LaToya Holley said she was initially shocked to learn that Fowler was testifying in Chauvin’s defense before thinking she should not have been, given the similarities between the two cases.
“So why wouldn’t they want him to testify in his defense?” said Holley, Black’s sister.
Holley said Fowler’s testimony in the high-profile trial won’t affect her family any more than her brother’s loss already does. They relive his death every day, she said, a pain that intensifies each time they hear about another unarmed Black man killed in an interaction with police.
On Sunday, Daunte Wright, 20, was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb, spurring a new wave of unrest in the region.
“It just seems to keep happening,” Holley said. “There just seems to be no high regard for human life. They are supposed to be protecting us, not executing us. Not be the judge, jury and executioner. That’s not what they were hired to do.”
In Minneapolis, the Hennepin County medical examiner ruled Floyd’s death a homicide. Chauvin was quickly charged with murder and manslaughter, and the three other officers at the scene were all charged with aiding and abetting murder.
When Black died in 2018, the case played out differently.
According to authorities, Greensboro police officer Thomas Webster IV encountered Black while responding to a call about a man pulling a younger male down the street.
Then, according to authorities and Black’s family, he ran away, and police chased and eventually pinned him down. Webster wrote in a court affidavit that he and another officer struggled with Black, trying to keep him restrained and handcuffed.
A report signed by Fowler and an assistant medical examiner deemed Black’s manner of death to be an accident. They said he “died of sudden cardiac death” due to heart issues and described bipolar disorder as “a significant contributing condition.”
Their examination noted that Black “suffered cardiac arrest while being restrained by law enforcement” and added that based on the investigation and Black’s autopsy, it was “likely that the stress of his struggle contributed to his death.”
“However, no evidence was found that restraint by law enforcement directly caused or significantly contributed to the decedent’s death; in particular, no evidence was found that restraint led to the decedent being asphyxiated,” they wrote.
In January 2019, Caroline County State’s Attorney Joseph Riley announced he would not bring the case to the grand jury to seek indictments in Black’s death. In a statement at the time, Riley quoted from the medical examiner’s report and described Black’s death as a tragedy.
But, he added, his office “is not empowered to prosecute tragic acts.” There was not enough evidence “to establish probable cause to seek an indictment,” Riley said.
Black’s family was outraged. In December they filed a federal lawsuit against a bevy of current and former government officials and entities over Black’s death, including Fowler, Webster, two Maryland police chiefs and three Maryland towns, among others.
The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, directly invoked Floyd’s death.
“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,” they wrote.
In their lawsuit, Black’s family said Webster “confronted Anton while he was in the midst of a mental health crisis.” They said Webster and other officers chased Black and eventually “forced him to the ground, pinning his slight frame beneath the collective weight of their bodies.”
In an affidavit filed in response to the suit, Webster wrote that the younger person with Black, whom he knew, told him “something to the effect of ‘he’s crazy, he has schizophrenia’ ” about the 19-year-old.
Webster added that Black was never hit with a weapon or a fist, nor was he put in “any kind of chokehold or neck restraint.” He also wrote that no officers put their full body weight onto Black.
The lawsuit filed by Black's family decried the medical examiner's determination that Black's bipolar disorder was a contributing cause of death. Their complaint accused the medical examiner's office of covering up “the obvious cause of death — prolonged restraint that prevented Anton from breathing.”
Black’s family alleged the medical examiner’s office was “'blaming the victim’ for his own death and obscuring official responsibility.”
The medical examiner’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying it did not discuss cases.
Last week, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, which is listed as the attorney for Fowler and others from the medical examiner’s office, filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the counts against them. An assistant attorney general who signed the motion did not respond to a request for comment.
Holley said she and her parents believe Fowler’s office was involved in a “coverup” with the local police, who are also being sued by the family.
“Look how long it took for us to get his autopsy report — four months,” she said.
The medical examiner’s final finding that a heart condition and his mental health diagnosis caused Black’s death is “baloney,” she said.
“We’ve all heard it before, and it’s crazy,” Holley said. “They try to pinpoint anything that they can instead of saying it was the police. … You do not die by being bipolar. That is not a death sentence. Anton’s interaction with the police that day, they actually stopped him from being able to breathe for six minutes or more. That’s what caused my brother to lose his life that day.”
Kenneth W. Ravenell, an attorney representing Black’s family in the lawsuit, said he would be riveted in front of his television when Fowler takes the stand for Chauvin’s defense in what he called an “eerily similar” case.
Ravenell said he did not know if a medical examiner has ever been sued for their findings in a police-involved death. But he criticized the findings in Black's case, saying they were “looking for any and every reason … than to say what the real cause of his death was.”
“One doesn’t just fall down and die from bipolar disorder,” Ravenell said. “They used that as a significant contributing factor to Anton’s death.”
While the family’s lawsuit is still pending in federal court, Black’s death continues to resonate in the state.
Black was the namesake for newly enacted Maryland police transparency legislation called “Anton’s Law.” The law allows for the release of information about investigations into alleged police misconduct, among other things.
That bill and other police accountability measures were enacted last weekend by Maryland lawmakers, who overrode a veto by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and muscled through bills requiring stricter use-of-force standards and giving civilian panels more power over officer discipline.
The law will take effect in October, just over three years after Black’s death.