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Md. introduces new policy for in-custody death autopsies

The policy requires medical examiners to list all sources of information used in autopsy reports and to state whether any officers were present during the autopsy

Md. introduces new policy for in-custody death autopsies

Maryland officials approved a $235,000 settlement on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023 in Annapolis, Md., to end litigation relating to how the state medical examiner’s office handled an autopsy for Anton Black, a 19-year-old who died in 2018 during a struggle in police custody on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

AP Photo/Brian Witte

By Brian Witte
Associated Press

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Maryland officials approved a settlement Wednesday that reforms the process for conducting autopsies on people killed in police custody, a move that follows the 2018 death of a man who died after a struggle with an officer.

The settlement ends litigation relating to how the medical examiner’s office performed an autopsy for Anton Black, a 19-year-old who died in police custody on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

The state has agreed to adopt a policy that explicitly addresses how medical examiners handle in-custody deaths, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland announced in a news release. It would apply to all deaths involving law enforcement restraint, including those that occur in jails, prisons and juvenile facilities.

The policy incorporates guidelines of the National Association of Medical Examiners for determining how such deaths are investigated and how examiners determine cause. The standards are clear that whenever a person would not have died “but for” the intentional conduct of another, that death is a homicide, the ACLU said.

The policy prohibits improper law enforcement influence on an autopsy by requiring medical examiners to consider investigative information independently and objectively in all cases. Medical examiners must document all sources of initial investigative information, as well as disclose if any law enforcement or other personnel is present for an autopsy, the ACLU said.

The medical examiner’s office also will be required to provide families who receive autopsy reports with notice of their rights to seek correction and a review of the findings.

The settlement approved by the state’s Board of Public Works, which is chaired by Gov. Wes Moore, also provides $100,000 to Black’s family and $135,000 for attorneys’ fees for the Coalition for Justice for Anton Black.

The three-member Board of Public Works approved the settlement without comment during a regularly scheduled meeting. The settlement resolves all claims against the state’s forensic pathologists, according to board records.

“The Governor was pleased to support this recommended settlement agreed upon by the Attorney General’s Office, the Black Family, and the Coalition to satisfactorily resolve their legal claims against the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner,” the governor’s office said in a statement after the meeting.

The autopsy found that Black died of sudden cardiac arrest, listing stress associated with the struggle with police as a factor that contributed, but also noting that there was no evidence that the officers’ restraint asphyxiated Black. But an expert for the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins University, concluded that asphyxiation was the cause of Black’s death.

Black’s death fueled calls for an independent investigation and inspired legislative reforms. A state law named after Black expanded public access to records about police disciplinary cases.