A former medical examiner testifying in former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin’s murder trial on Wednesday raised the bizarre theory that exhaust from the police car may have contributed to George Floyd’s death.
Dr. David Fowler, a defense witness, wheeled out studies that showed people can die of carbon monoxide poisoning in open spaces, and that people with heart issues are more susceptible.
“In my opinion, Mr. Floyd had a sudden cardiac arrhythmia or cardiac arrhythmia due to his atherosclerotic or hypertensive heart disease… during his restraint and subdual by the police, and then his significant contributory conditions would be... he would have the toxicology, the fentanyl and methamphetamine, there is exposure to a vehicle exhaust, so potentially carbon monoxide poisoning or at least an effect from increased carbon monoxide in his bloodstream, and paraganglioma,” Fowler, who was the chief medical examiner for the state of Maryland for almost two decades, told jurors in Hennepin County court on Tuesday.
The paraganglioma referred to a benign tumor found on Floyd’s pelvis after his death, which Fowler claimed could increase adrenaline. “All those combined to cause Mr. Floyd’s death,” he added.
He said that carbon monoxide did not “exclusively” cause Floyd’s death and he wasn’t aware if carbon monoxide levels were tested during Floyd’s autopsy. He explained that the cops likely didn’t suffer from the exposure because they were farther away from the car, were younger, and “hopefully” didn’t have heart disease.
However, just a few minutes into cross-examination, Fowler conceded that there were no findings of carbon monoxide in Floyd’s official autopsy report and that he didn’t know how much carbon monoxide was being emitted from the cop car during the arrest.
“Cutting even more to the chase, how do you even know the car was on?” Special Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell asked, to which Fowler replied, “It was a question I specifically asked, and then I made an observation of water dripping from what appears to be a tailpipe.”
He also admitted there are often no visible injuries associated with asphyxia—which prosecutors and several of their medical witnesses have said was the cause of Floyd’s death by cardiopulmonary arrest.
Fowler’s testimony came a day after another defense witness, former cop Barry Vance Brodd, made the unusual statement on Tuesday that Chauvin’s nine-minute restraint of Floyd was not a “use of force” but, rather, a “control technique” because it caused Floyd no pain. Under intense cross-examination, he eventually admitted that Floyd would have felt pain when Chauvin had both knees on top of him.
As Fowler described Chauvin’s use of force as seemingly justified, jurors looked visibly tired while Chauvin scribbled on a notepad, according to pool reports from inside the room on Wednesday.
Fowler is among several people being sued by the family of Anton Black, who died in police custody in September 2018 in Maryland. The suit alleges that Fowler was among several officials who covered up the use of force in the case and that he unnecessarily delayed autopsy results and was unethically influenced by police.
Dr. Andrew Baker, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner who performed the autopsy on Floyd previously testified that he died of “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression”—which he said was “fancy medical lingo for the heart and the lungs stopped… in the setting of law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” He said heart disease, fentanyl use, and methamphetamine use were “other significant conditions” but did not cause Floyd’s death.
He made no mention of carbon monoxide and noted that Floyd had a paraganglioma, or a benign tumor, on his pelvis but said it played no role in his death.
An independent report commissioned by Floyd’s family, which will not be shown at trial, concluded that he died of strangulation from the pressure to his back and neck. It did mention carbon monoxide. Both reports determined Floyd’s death was a homicide.
On Wednesday, however, Fowler said he would have classified the manner of death as “undetermined,” rather than a homicide.
He insisted that Chauvin’s knee did not injure Floyd—nor did the prone position that Floyd was placed in during the arrest. Stating there was “no evidence” in research that suggests the prone position restricts airflow, he said that “none of the vital structures were in the area where the knee appeared to be from the videos.”
He acknowledged that Chauvin’s restraint was a “stressful” situation for Floyd that would have “increased his fight or flight-type reaction” but he considered it less important than other factors in his death.
Chauvin’s defense team began their case on Tuesday by focusing on Floyd’s previous drug history, his frantic behavior during his May arrest, and the crowd of bystanders that one police witness called “very aggressive.” Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s lawyer, has previously argued that Floyd’s death was partially a result of health issues and drugs—and that his client was simply doing what “he was trained to do throughout his 19-year career.”
Prosecutors called 38 witnesses over 11 potent days of testimony, including the Minneapolis police chief, who said the former officer “absolutely” violated protocol, and three renowned medical experts who said Floyd died of low oxygen caused by the cops’ actions alone, rather than drugs or heart disease. Bystanders and other police officers testified that the crowd watching Floyd’s arrest was not so threatening as to warrant excessive force.
Chauvin, 45, is on trial for second and third-degree murder as well as second-degree manslaughter. Three other officers involved in Floyd’s arrest—Tou Thao, Thomas K. Lane, and J. Alexander Kueng—will face trial in August on charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder while committing a felony, and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter with culpable negligence.
On Wednesday, Morries Hall, who was in the car with Floyd on May 25, refused to testify in Chauvin’s trial, invoking his constitutional right against self-incrimination because he fears being charged. Hall’s lawyers told the court last week that the 42-year-old may open himself to third-degree murder charges in connection to Floyd’s death given the accusations that he provided Floyd with drugs.
“I’m fearful of criminal charges going forward,” Hall told Judge Peter Cahill before court began on Wednesday. “I [also] have open charges that’s not settled yet.”