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Medical Examiner Accused of Covering Up Police Killing in Maryland Becomes Witness for Derek Chauvin

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In the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a key witness for the defense was the former Maryland chief medical examiner, Dr. David Fowler, who contradicted most other expert witnesses in the trial and suggested heart trouble and other issues, not the police restraint, caused George Floyd’s death. The decision by Chauvin’s legal team to rely on Fowler’s testimony shocked many in Maryland, where he is being sued by the family of 19-year-old Anton Black, an African American teenager from Maryland who died in 2018 after he was electrocuted with a Taser, pinned in a prone position and crushed under the weight of three white police officers and a white civilian as he struggled to breathe and lost consciousness. After an autopsy, Dr. Fowler ruled Black’s death an accident, and no one was charged with a crime. The wrongful death lawsuit says Dr. Fowler delayed release of an autopsy report for months and covered up police responsibility for Black’s death. Sonia Kumar, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, says there is “a pattern of conduct in Maryland involving police violence against Black people that then are characterized as anything other than homicides.” We also speak with Richard Potter, the founder of the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black and president of the Talbot County branch of the NAACP, who says officials in Anton Black’s case spent months dragging their feet after the teenager’s death. “Nobody was giving the family any information in terms of a cause of death,” he says.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Closing arguments in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin are set for Monday, after Chauvin’s defense rested their case after calling just seven witnesses. Chauvin chose not to testify in his own trial, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Derek Chauvin faces murder and manslaughter charges for killing George Floyd last May by kneeling on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds.

One of the witnesses for the defense was Dr. David Fowler, the former chief medical examiner for the state of Maryland. He dismissed an official autopsy report and blamed Floyd’s death on heart trouble and other issues, not the police restraint.

DR. DAVID FOWLER: He would have the toxicology, the fentanyl and methamphetamine. There is exposure to a vehicle exhaust, so potentially carbon monoxide poisoning, or at least an effect from increased carbon monoxide in his bloodstream, and paraganglioma or the other natural disease process that he has. So, all of those combined to cause Mr. Floyd’s death.

AMY GOODMAN: Under cross-examination, Dr. Fowler admitted there was no evidence of carbon monoxide in George Floyd’s blood.

Dr. Fowler is currently being sued by the family of 19-year-old Anton Black, an African American teenager from Maryland who died in 2018 after he was electrocuted with a Taser, pinned in a prone position and crushed under the weight of three white police officers and a white civilian. As he struggled to breathe, he lost consciousness. Black died on the front porch of his mother’s home as she was forced to stand by watching. After an autopsy, Dr. Fowler ruled Black’s death an accident, and no one was charged with a crime.

The wrongful death lawsuit says Dr. Fowler delayed release of an autopsy report for months and covered up police responsibility for Black’s death. The ACLU of Maryland helped bring the lawsuit against Fowler. The group also produced this short video about the police killing of Anton Black, featuring his sister, LaToya Holley.

LATOYA HOLLEY: It was a body-worn camera that basically revealed what happened to him. One of the officers, who was morbidly obese, actually, put his entire weight on top of Anton, who was 160 pounds. Anton was lying face down on an incline, which is actually a wheelchair ramp. And you could even hear on the body-worn camera that some of the other officers on the scene was telling the chief to shift his weight. And he did not.

THOMAS WEBSTER IV: I got one cuff.

CHIEF GARY MANOS: OK, hold on.

THOMAS WEBSTER IV: All right. Roll over. Roll over, Chief.

CHIEF GARY MANOS: Hold on. Let me get it.

LATOYA HOLLEY: The medical examiner tried to say that it was a preexisting heart condition that caused Anton’s death, and says interaction with law enforcement officers contributed. But we actually have independent reports from other pathologists that says that Anton died from what is called positional asphyxiation. They basically smothered him to death.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s LaToya Holley, the sister of Anton Black, 19 years old, killed by police in Maryland in 2018. Earlier this week, Latoya said, quote, “It’s surreal that you have two men on the opposite sides of the country that experienced almost the same treatment by two different police officers. The medical examiner, in my opinion, was egregious in the way he finalized Anton’s autopsy results. Now, he’s being called to be an expert witness for another police officer.”

We’re joined now by two guests. Sonia Kumar is senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, and Richard Potter is founder of the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black and president of the Talbot County, Maryland, branch of the NAACP.

Sonia, let’s start with you. Tell us the story of Anton.

SONIA KUMAR: You know, I think the story really begins with a pattern of conduct in Maryland involving police violence against Black people, that then are characterized as anything other than homicides, despite clear evidence of the cause of death. And what we really need to understand is that just as we saw in the case of Mr. Floyd, in Maryland, under Dr. Fowler’s leadership, there was a very clear and consistent pattern of creating false and misleading narratives that reinforced police narratives, but essentially covered up and minimized the role of police actions in causing death, in a very intentional way.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Potter, were you surprised to see Dr. David Fowler, the medical examiner in Maryland in Anton’s case, called to testify in the case of Derek Chauvin?

RICHARD POTTER: Yes, I was very shocked when I saw that. But I wasn’t surprised, because, again, the case down in Minnesota, they’re try to get a person that agrees with what it is that — how they want to tell the story. So, I was shocked, in one sense, but not surprised, in another.

AMY GOODMAN: So, tell us Anton’s story, and tell us the story of his death, September 15, 2018.

RICHARD POTTER: Sure. So, Anton was walking with his cousin in Greensboro, Maryland, on his way to his residence, when a 911 call came in from a white woman to say that this older child was kidnapping this younger child.

So, upon them making the entrance back onto the main highway from the bridge in which they were walking to, that’s when Anton and his cousin was approached by officer Webster. And you see — in the bodycam footage of officer Webster, you see the young boy walking across the street. And then you see an interaction between Webster and Anton, and you hear Webster telling Anton to “turn around and put your hands behind your back.”

At that moment and at that time, that’s when you see Anton run. He runs in one direction. And then, at that time, he sees the other officer, who was an off-duty officer at the time, with a Confederate flag on his helmet, starting to come after him. He turns around and runs into the opposite direction, at this point in time running home.

When he gets home, he is sitting in a car that is incapacitated, that could not be moved. And he’s sitting there in the driver’s side. You see Webster walk up to the driver’s side window, takes his baton and breaks the window. And then you see Anton jump to the passenger side, in which he’s trying to get out.

And at that point, he is encountered by Gary Manos, the chief of police of Ridgely, Maryland, who then wrestles him to the ground of that ramp area, in which then that’s where the struggle began. And you can see Gary Manos putting his entire bodyweight on Anton, to the point where you can’t even see Anton anymore.

And then, of course, his mother is then called out because of all the confusion that she’s hearing. And they have Anton in slip ties. And then the mother is the one that recognizes that something’s not right. She says, “He’s turning purple. Something’s not right with him.” And then that’s when they put him back down on the ground. And then you see 36 minutes of them trying to perform CPR, approximately. And then Anton is pronounced dead at the hospital.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, then what happened with the investigation?

RICHARD POTTER: So, at that particular point, the reports came out in the local newspaper, and they were reporting that this kid was kidnapping a younger child. There was inconsistencies in the way the reports read. And then, I would say, about two months after that, the case went cold. There was no information, no nothing coming out from the public.

In, I would probably say, October, November, the family had no information as to the cause of death. They were trying to get the bodycam footage released, which we believe was altered, because we’ve had several people tell us that that’s not what — the original bodycam footage is not what they saw once it was released from The Baltimore Sun. We were then trying to push to get an autopsy report released. And nobody was giving the family any information in terms of a cause of death. This was September. We didn’t get an autopsy report until January almost. And that’s when Governor Hogan made reference to this, is when an autopsy report came out. So the family was left in complete limbo.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, that autopsy report came out of the office of Dr. David Fowler, who testified in Derek Chauvin’s case. Sonia Kumar, take it from there. What did the autopsy report say? And why did the ACLU of Maryland sue?

SONIA KUMAR: In the case of Anton Black, Dr. Fowler’s office blamed everything but the actions of police — just to reiterate, in chasing, tasing and pinning Anton to the ground, handcuffing him and then continuing to pin him face down to the ground for at least five more minutes. Instead of acknowledging the role of that police violence, according to the Office of the Medical Examiner, Anton died primarily because of a heart condition. And the office also claimed that a contributing cause Anton’s bipolar disorder, even though bipolar disorder is a psychiatric condition and it’s sort of facially absurd to say that it can contribute to death. And in their report, they actually specifically said police force and restraint was not a significant factor.

So, just to be clear, because of that false report, Anton’s family and the community are still searching for accountability. The professional association for medical examiners, National Association of Medical Examiners, is very clear about what homicide is. Homicide is death at the hands of another. It’s not about culpability, like whether the person was acting in self-defense. It’s just about accurately and truthfully describing cause and effect. But for the person’s actions, would this person be alive? But what we saw in Anton’s case, just as we saw in Mr. Floyd’s case, was this attempt to deflect responsibility or causality to anything but the actual obvious cause, which was police use of force and restraint.

And so, in Anton’s autopsy, the medical examiner’s report said several things. First, they said there was no evidence of positional asphyxia. So, that sounds pretty definitive at first, to a layperson. But then you review the literature and talk to numerous other experts, who say, in many instances, there isn’t going to be a physical signature, so the absence of evidence doesn’t tell you anything. And there’s a real difference. And the concern we had that led us to take action in this case was the difference between rendering opinions where reasonable minds can differ versus actively concealing facts that prevent us from acknowledging what actually happened.

And, you know, the driving force here was really Anton’s family, but also the families that came before them. So, before Anton, in Maryland, there was Tyrone West’s case. And in that case, the other potential cause was hot temperatures. We heard, in Mr. Floyd’s case, Dr. Fowler tried to blame car exhaust. In Anton’s case, it was bipolar disorder. So, what we saw was this pattern of locating a causal connection between everything but the actual force and restraint used on Black people. And so, for that reason, we joined the family, we joined the community, in calling for accountability and raising awareness and educating people about the complicity of other institutions in protecting and perpetuating police violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Potter, you’re very close to Anton Black’s family. What are they calling for now? And also, in seeing him testify in defense of Derek Chauvin, though he was, to say the least, picked apart by the prosecution?

RICHARD POTTER: So, one of the things that the family is calling for is justice. And we’re looking for justice in our policies in our state, so this does not happen ever again to another Black or Brown family, is what the family is definitely calling for. And because of the call to action that the family put out, we have been advocating and lobbying for police reform bills in Maryland at the General Assembly, and we are grateful that this session we were able to get major police reform passed, including Anton’s Law, which we’ve been trying to get that done for the last two sessions of the General Assembly, but we were successful this year, along with the other police bills. So, that’s what the family is pushing for, so that we are creating some systemic change here so that we can eliminate or drastically reduce what we’re seeing, the pain that families, Black and Brown families, are having to have when they’re encountering situations like this. So, that’s what the family is pushing for.

AMY GOODMAN: And the police officers who were involved in Anton’s death, Richard, what’s happened to them?

RICHARD POTTER: So, Webster is no longer a police officer. The Maryland state Training and [Standards] Commission did decertify him. The chief of police that hired Webster pled guilty to malfeasance in office, and he is no longer a police officer, as well. So, those two, we were able to get done through, you know, some investigatory work that the coalition was able to do. And with the help of other folks, we were able to get those two immediate threats taken off of the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Richard Potter, Coalition for Justice for Anton Black, president of the NAACP of Talbot County, Maryland, and Sonia Kumar, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland.

When we come back, we look at President Biden’s decision to issue sweeping sanctions against Russia and expel 10 diplomats. Stay with us.

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