Doctor who performed George Floyd autopsy stands by homicide conclusion

Andrew Baker ruled Floyd died because of the way Derek Chauvin and others pinned him to ground

Defence attorney Eric Nelson (left) and defendant, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin (right) at the trial of Mr  Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis in which he is charged in the May 25th, 2020 death of George Floyd. Photograph: Court TV/AP/Pool

Defence attorney Eric Nelson (left) and defendant, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin (right) at the trial of Mr Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis in which he is charged in the May 25th, 2020 death of George Floyd. Photograph: Court TV/AP/Pool

 

The medical examiner who performed the autopsy on George Floyd after last May’s deadly arrest explained how he concluded the death was a homicide at the hands of police in testimony on Friday at former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin’s murder trial.

As jurors studied autopsy photographs, Dr Andrew Baker, Hennepin County’s chief medical examiner, said he stood by the cause of death he determined last year: “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint and neck compression.”

In short, Dr Baker ruled that Floyd’s heart stopped beating and his lungs stopped working because Mr Chauvin (45) and other officers pinned him to the ground in a way that starved his body of oxygen.

Prosecutors also have presented testimony from four other medical experts to challenge Mr Chauvin’s defence against murder and manslaughter charges – that Floyd may have died of a drug overdose – and back up Dr Baker’s findings. Mr Chauvin has pleaded not guilty.

Mr Chauvin, who is white, was seen in videos of the arrest kneeling for more than nine minutes on Floyd’s neck as the 46-year-old Black man, in handcuffs, begged for his life in a fading voice. Floyd’s death prompted protests against racism and police brutality in many cities in the United States and around the world.

Dr Baker described how he performed the autopsy, including extra steps to cut into the flesh around where Floyd’s wrists were handcuffed and along his back to look for bruising from the arrest. Mr Chauvin and three other officers were attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of using a fake $20 bill to buy cigarettes at a grocery store. They were fired the following day.

Dr Baker said he noted Floyd’s heart disease and the fentanyl and methamphetamine found in his blood on the death certificate because they may have played a role in the death, but “were not direct causes”.

“Mr. Floyd’s use of fentanyl did not cause the subdual or the neck restraint, his heart disease did not cause the subdual or the neck restraint,” Baker told the jury, referring to the way police pressed Floyd face down against the street.

Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell asked Dr Baker why he did not photograph Floyd’s heart, anticipating questions by Mr Chauvin’s lawyer on whether heart disease caused Floyd’s death.

“I don’t normally photograph organs that appear to be perfectly normal unless there’s some reason to,” Dr Baker said. “I don’t have a photograph of Mr Floyd’s spleen or Mr Floyd’s liver, either, because those were also grossly normal.”

Videos

Dr Lindsey Thomas, an assistant medical examiner in the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office until she went into “semi-retirement” in 2017, said the sheer volume of videos of Floyd’s arrest helped support Dr Baker’s findings.

“There’s never been a case I was involved in that had videos over such a long time frame and from so many different perspectives,” Thomas testified, saying the videos made it clear physical signs associated with opioid overdose were not present in Floyd’s death.

Dr Thomas said she had performed more than 5,000 autopsies during her career. While physically examining a body can be helpful in determining a cause of death, Dr Thomas said other records and inquiries can sometimes be even more illuminating.

“What was absolutely unique in this case was the volume of materials I had to review,” Dr Thomas said, referring to videos recorded on bystanders’ cellphones and police body-worn cameras.

Dr Thomas said the videos made clear this was not a sudden death from a heart attack. She said the videos also did not show signs of a fentanyl overdose “where someone becomes very sleepy and then just sort of gradually, calmly, peacefully stops breathing.”

Jurors were handed envelopes containing photographs of Floyd’s corpse. Dr Thomas drew their attention to abrasions on the left side of Floyd’s face and his shoulder – wounds she called “consistent with what it looks like on the video, that he’s struggling to push himself into a position where he can breathe”.

Eric Nelson, Mr Chauvin’s lead lawyer, got Dr Thomas to agree that being prone was not in itself sufficient to kill someone, noting that massage therapists sometimes have clients lie face down.

“I could be laying by the pool in Florida on my stomach in the prone position – not inherently dangerous?” Mr Nelson asked.

“Right,” Dr Thomas replied.

Mr Nelson asked her about hypothetical scenarios, with Floyd being found dead in different circumstances in which police were not involved.

Mr Blackwell, the prosecutor, subsequently asked Dr Thomas, “George Floyd was not laying by the pool on his stomach in Florida, was he?”

Dr Thomas agreed, saying: “There’s no evidence to suggest he would have died that night except for the interactions with law enforcement.” – Reuters