A medical expert called by former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin’s defense team testified Wednesday that carbon monoxide inhaled by George Floyd may have played a role in his death.
Dr. David Fowler, a retired forensic pathologist and former Maryland chief medical examiner, was the only witness called on the 13th day of Chauvin’s murder trial, and his testimony was a marked departure from that of medical experts called by the prosecution.
Fowler, who reviewed Floyd’s medical records, autopsy and death certificate, was asked by defense attorney Eric Nelson about his opinion on the cause and manner of Floyd’s death.
“Mr. Floyd died of a cardiac arrhythmia [the stopping of the heart] due to hypertensive atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease during the restraint,” Fowler said.
Nelson then asked Fowler whether there were any “contributing causes” in Floyd’s death.
“Yes,” Fowler said. “The substances — the fentanyl and the methamphetamine. The potential of a carbon monoxide role. And the potential of the paraganglioma was adding adrenaline to this whole mixture — making things even worse.”
Earlier in the trial, when prosecutors presented their case, witnesses established that Floyd had severe underlying heart disease and hypertension, which means that his heart weighed more than it should for a healthy person of his age and, as a result, he needed more oxygen, according to April 9 testimony from Dr. Andrew Baker, the Hennepin County medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Floyd.
Baker’s autopsy report also stated that Floyd’s body showed evidence of “fentanyl intoxication” and “recent methamphetamine use.” Medical experts for the state, however, have testified that the amounts were too low to have played a large role in his death.
The “paraganglioma,” Fowler said, is a tumor that was found in Floyd’s abdominal area during the autopsy. According to the National Cancer Institute, it commonly occurs in people ages 30 to 50 and can cause high blood pressure and an accelerated heartbeat. Floyd was 46.
Fowler’s mention of carbon monoxide was the first time during Chauvin’s trial that a medical expert brought up the potentially lethal gas as a possible contributing factor in Floyd’s death. Fowler said that Floyd’s “exposure to vehicle exhausts,” from when Floyd was pinned down by Chauvin and two other (now former) Minneapolis police officers during his arrest outside the Cup Foods convenience store, potentially led to “carbon monoxide poisoning, or at least an effect from increased carbon monoxide in his bloodstream.”
Fowler said that due to all of the factors at play during the incident — the “drug intoxication,” natural disease and the restraint on Floyd — he would label the cause of Floyd’s death “undetermined,” which means that “the information pointing to one manner of death is no more compelling than one or more other competing manners of death.” Fowler’s conclusion was not shared by Baker or the medical examiners who conducted a separate autopsy for Floyd’s family. They all ruled Floyd’s death a homicide.
During cross-examination, prosecuting attorney Jerry Blackwell attempted to poke holes in Fowler’s assessment.
“You haven’t seen any data or test results that showed Mr. Floyd had a single injury from carbon monoxide. Is that true?” Blackwell asked.
“That is correct,” Fowler said.
“As you were talking about carbon monoxide, you were referring to the squad car that Mr. Floyd was near, weren’t you?” Blackwell continued.
“Yes,” Fowler replied.
“Have you ever laid eyes on the squad car that you were referring to?” Blackwell then asked.
“I have not,” Fowler said.
Fowler’s testimony Wednesday is consistent with the arguments Nelson has made throughout the trial, through his questions and March 29 opening statement — that Floyd’s death was a result of multiple factors, not just Chauvin’s use of force.
Nelson’s case is expected to continue this week. Chauvin, 45, is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death.
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