Forensic pathologist says manner of Floyd’s death ‘undetermined’

By: - April 14, 2021 6:44 pm

Dr. David Fowler, Maryland’s retired chief medical examiner, said he could not rule Floyd’s death a homicide.

Testimony in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial is nearing the end. Jurors heard from a Maryland forensic pathologist Wednesday who said George Floyd died of sudden cardiac arrest due to heart disease while being restrained by three Minneapolis police officers. 

The defense witness contradicted prosecution experts who said Floyd died of asphyxia as a result of the police officers’ handcuffing and laying him face down on the pavement, where Chauvin kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.

Defense expert: Manner of death ‘undetermined’

Maryland’s retired chief medical examiner said he could not rule it a homicide. 

Dr. David Fowler said significant “contributory conditions” were the fentanyl and methamphetamine in Floyd’s system at the time; Floyd’s exposure to exhaust from the squad car tailpipe near Floyd’s head; and a paraganglioma tumor discovered during his autopsy. Paragangliomas are rare, usually benign tumors that can secrete adrenaline. 

“All of those combined to cause Mr. Floyd’s death,” said Fowler, who is now a consultant.

Fowler has faced scrutiny recently after reporting in The Intercept and other publications showed between 2013 and 2019, 30% of deaths involving police reviewed by his office were classified as “accidents,” “undetermined,” or due to “natural causes,” citing state data. He’s being sued by the family of Anton Black, who died under similar circumstances as Floyd, but Fowler ruled Black’s death an accident.  

Last week, Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Andrew Baker testified that the officers’ restraint of Floyd on the street caused his death. He said Floyd’s heart disease and drug use were contributing causes, but not direct causes.

Fowler said while he wasn’t suggesting Floyd died from carbon monoxide poisoning, the toxic gas adversely affects people with significant heart disease and could have been “another potential insult, another brick in the wall” for Floyd.

Fowler also testified about studies showing no evidence of asphyxia caused by putting people face down and applying weight to their chest. One such study was criticized by state experts because it used young, healthy volunteers on a gym mat in a situation where they weren’t fearful for their lives.

He also said Chauvin’s knee didn’t impact any of the “vital structures” of Floyd’s neck, and there were no injuries found on his neck or back.

During cross examination, Fowler acknowledged:

  • None of the studies he testified about involved someone’s knee on a neck for nine minutes, 29 seconds.
  • Floyd should have been given immediate medical attention when he went into cardiac arrest.
  • There are only six reported cases of people dying of a sudden heart event from a paraganglioma, although he said they often go unrecognized.

Passenger invokes 5th amendment

The judge ruled Wednesday morning that Floyd’s passenger Morries Hall did not have to testify after he invoked his 5th Amendment right not to be compelled to incriminate himself.  

His attorney said he couldn’t answer any questions without exposing himself to drug charges and third-degree murder charges, since prosecutors did not offer him immunity.

Assistant Public Defender Adrienne Cousins said Hall is exposed to charges whether Chauvin is convicted or acquitted because drugs were found in Floyd’s car.

Nearing the end

Early Wednesday, Nelson made a motion for acquittal — without jurors in the room — but Cahill denied the motion. This is a routine defense maneuver. 

At one point, the judge said the defense might finish presenting its case Wednesday — although it did not — indicating the defense is nearing the end of its witness list. Cahill has said jurors may get Friday off, with closing statements to be given Monday. The jury will then be sequestered to deliberate.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.

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