The top prosecutor in Caroline County said late Thursday that he would not seek an indictment against any of the three police officers involved in a pursuit that resulted in the death of a 19-year-old African-American man who was in their custody last September.
The decision by Caroline County State’s Attorney Joseph A. Riley (R) not to indict any of the officers came a day after Maryland’s chief medical examiner ruled that the teenager, Anton Black, died from “sudden cardiac death” due to a heart condition, and concluded that his struggle with police likely contributed to his death.
A diagnosis of bipolar disorder was also cited as “a significant contributing factor,” said Chief Medical Examiner David Fowler, who ruled on the Eastern Shore youth’s death four months after the Sept. 15 incident.
“The manner of death is best certified as accident,” Fowler concluded, basing the determination on a review of the autopsy findings and an investigation being conducted by the Maryland State Police.
Maryland State Police are investigating an incident involving three white police officers and a civilian, who voluntarily came to the aid of the officers, in Black’s death. At different stages, the men had a role in attempting to restrain Black, according to the body camera video the Greensboro Police provided to media Wednesday and a timeline of the video provided by state police.
A spokeswoman for the state police said the agency’s report has been sent to Riley for possible further action. However, the investigation is still ongoing.
“It does not mean the investigation is over by any means – it’s active and ongoing,” said state police spokeswoman Elena Russo.
But late Thursday, after the release of the autopsy report, Riley announced in a news release that there is currently not enough evidence to establish probable cause to seek an indictment against the officers. Black’s family requested the county empanel a grand jury, and Riley said a grand jury was sworn in earlier this month.
“There is no intention to place this matter before them at this time,” Riley said of the grand jury. “The Office of the State’s Attorney for Caroline County remains committed to following the evidence in this matter wherever it leads and will evaluate all evidence that is shared.”
The term of the grand jury is one year. Black’s family will be conducting its own investigation, according to the release.
Meanwhile, Mike Petyo, chief of police in the small Eastern Shore town of Greensboro, where Black died, said Wednesday he would soon resign after accepting another job. No replacement has been named.
Earlier this month, Greensboro Police placed Officer Thomas Webster IV, one of the three officers involved in the encounter with Black, on paid administrative leave after community pressure. Two off-duty police officers from neighboring communities also involved in the incident, Ridgely Police Chief Gary Manos and Centreville Cpl. Dennis Lannon, have not been placed on leave.
Manos said in an interview that as chief, he has the discretion to determine whether he should be placed on leave or not – and added that he didn’t see any reason for it. Centreville Police Chief Kenneth Rhodes, who reviewed footage from Webster’s body camera, said Lannon played a “marginal” role in the encounter. Rhodes also said department policy does not require a separate investigation when an officer is off-duty and in a different jurisdiction.
Black’s close-knit family, who primarily reside on the Eastern Shore, has vowed to seek justice. The family has been waiting for answers from the state police, the state medical examiner’s office and the county attorney since Black died. They have also requested that the video from Webster’s body camera be made public.
On Wednesday afternoon at a church in Greensboro, following the media’s viewing of the video, they accused police of murdering their son.
“They lynched him,” Black’s father, Antone Black Sr., said. “They didn’t use a rope and a tree, they used a gun and a badge.”
Black’s mother said police killed her son while his hands were restrained behind his back.
“I want them to pay for what they did,” Jennell Black said. “And [they] did it front of me.”
The family did not respond to a request for comment Thursday following the release of the autopsy results and the state’s attorney’s decision not to seek an indictment.
‘An appropriate level of force’
Black, a college student, budding model and soon-to-be father, died after being pursued by three white police officers to his family’s yard in Greensboro on Sept. 15. A concerned resident had called 911 shortly after 7 p.m., claiming Black was forcefully dragging a 12-year-old boy down the road near the Choptank River Bridge.
Black’s father said the boy was a family friend and that his son would never have hurt him. But in an interview Wednesday, the boy’s father, Kevin Bordley, said his son was scared and felt threatened. His father said the boy now attends counseling sessions because he blames himself for Black’s death.
The medical examiner’s report is partly based on the video footage from Webster’s camera. On Wednesday in Greensboro, media were allowed to view an unredacted version of the video before its planned release to the public late Thursday.
An expert working with the Greensboro Police who addressed journalists after the screening Wednesday said he did not witness excessive use of force by police officers who restrained Anton Black minutes before he died. But he also acknowledged that there were moments during the body camera footage when views were obstructed.
“Based on what I saw, it was an appropriate level of force and the legal standard is reasonable,” William Gleason, an expert in police use of force, said. “I did not see anything excessive by any of the officers. No strikes, no choke holds, no asphyxia, [no] laying on top of him for an extended period of time.”
A segment in the timeline provided by the state police of the video does, however, note one moment when Manos is “laying partially across Antons Back” at the 03:56 time stamp.
State police spokeswoman Russo said obstructions naturally occur because of physical movement.
“Any obstruction in body cameras is a natural movement occurring on the scene,” she said. “There is no indication, no evidence that shows that the body cam was intentionally obstructed throughout this entire incident. Any obstructions that may have occurred throughout any portion of the body cam footage did not inhibit the investigators from reaching a factual conclusion.”
Gleason conceded there was a moment in the footage where he can understand why some people may think they see what looks like a chokehold. But he said Black showed no signs of distress during that time.
“I made a note of about 2 minutes and 35 seconds,” Gleason said. “An officer goes up to push [Black] up against the wall to help control him. It’s not a strike, it’s not aggressive. It’s called counter pressure, so he can’t push off and you try to get him down to the ground. You can see the officer’s hand go up towards the shoulder area and you see the officer’s hand go up into the face area – because it’s a fluid situation, very dynamic situation.
“The officer, as he pushes him up against the trailer, his hands slide up around the shoulder area. I never see it go around the neck. You never see any response from Mr. Black that he’s being choked like gagging or coughing. Then at 2 minutes and 36 seconds, in the next frame, you see the officer’s thumb in Mr. Black’s mouth. It looks like he’s biting him. Then a half a frame after that it’s completely gone and [Black] continues to speak and yell and scream after that. If he would have been choked out, he wouldn’t been able to do all those things.”
Gleason’s time stamps, however, do not match up with the timeline provided by the state police. At 2 minutes and 35 seconds, the state police timeline – provided through Riley’s office Wednesday – states Anton Black is seated in the driver’s seat of a white Honda in the front yard. At 2 minutes and 42 seconds, Black is said to be exiting the car and becomes involved in a physical altercation with Manos.
There are also two entries for 2 minutes and 42 seconds on the police timeline.
“02:42 Chief Manos yells ‘watch his hands’ and Officer Webster draws his Taser and fires once through the driver’s window. The Taser strikes Anton with one prong and the circuit does not complete. At the time the Taser is discharged, Anton is climbing across the center console in an effort to exit the vehicle via passenger door. Officer Webster says ‘Taser, Taser, Taser on body cam.’”
The second entry for 2 minutes, 42 seconds states:
“02:42 Anton Black exits the vehicle and becomes involved in a physical altercation with Chief Manos. Chief Manos is wearing tan shorts and blue shirt. The altercation continues as Anton Black resists arrest. As Anton Black and Chief Manos continue to struggle they work their way up the handicap ramp to the front of the residence. Chief Manos continues telling Anton Black to ‘stop, you’re under arrest.’”
Russo said the state police did not manipulate the timeline.
“The investigators literally logged the video, without any alterations, creating a play by play of the incident,” she said.
On Thursday afternoon Riley authorized law enforcement agencies to release the video based on their individual policies.
Click here to see the body camera video.