I previously wrote that the key to conviction in the Derek Chauvin trial (and avoiding a cascading failure in all four cases) is the autopsy findings and the role of drugs (including fentanyl) in the body of George Floyd.
Prosecutors are now asking the jury to effectively dismiss the findings of the only official autopsy in the case and insist, contrary to those findings, that Floyd died from asphyxia, or, lack of oxygen. Some new disclosures may make that claim more difficult for the prosecution.
Last week, special prosecutor Jerry Blackwell admitted to jurors that Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker pointed to cardiac arrest as Floyd’s cause of death. However, he insisted that the state would prove that “was … not a fatal heart event,” but asphyxiation .
It is a bold move since it could invite reasonable doubt on the cause of death. The question is whether a case of manslaughter could have been advanced without the need of opposing the state’s own coroner on such findings. The failure of Chauvin to respond to a medical emergency speaks more to manslaughter than murder but it could be framed consistently with these findings. Instead, the prosecution has asked the jury to effectively reject the coroner’s findings — a risky maneuver.
We have previously discussed key defense elements in the case:
- When called to the scene due to Floyd allegedly passing counterfeit money, Floyd denied using drugs but later said he was “hooping,” or taking drugs.
- The autopsy did not conclude that Floyd died from asphyxiation (though a family pathologist made that finding). Rather, it found “cardiopulmonary arrest while being restrained by law enforcement officer(s).” The state’s criminal complaint against Chauvin said the autopsy “revealed no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation. Mr. Floyd had underlying health conditions including coronary artery disease and hypertensive heart disease.” He also was COVID-19 positive.
- Andrew Baker, Hennepin County’s chief medical examiner, strongly suggested that the primary cause was a huge amount of fentanyl in Floyd’s system: “Fentanyl at 11 ng/ml — this is higher than (a) chronic pain patient. If he were found dead at home alone & no other apparent causes, this could be acceptable to call an OD (overdose). Deaths have been certified w/levels of 3.” Baker also told investigators that the autopsy revealed no physical evidence suggesting Floyd died of asphyxiation.
- The toxicology report on Floyd’s blood also noted that “in fatalities from fentanyl, blood concentrations are variable and have been reported as low as 3 ng/ml.” Floyd had almost four times the level of fentanyl considered potentially lethal.
- Floyd notably repeatedly said that he could not breathe while sitting in the police cruiser and before he was ever restrained on the ground. That is consistent with the level of fentanyl in his system that can cause “slowed or stopped breathing.”
- Floyd’s lungs were two to three times the normal size and filled with fluid. “Pulmonary edema is a condition caused by excess fluid in the lungs” and it is symptomatic of an opioid overdose, according to Mayo Clinic.
- Finally, the restraint using an officer’s knee on an uncooperative suspect was part of the training of officers, and jurors will watch training videotapes employing the same type of restraint as official policy.
What is interesting is that the prosecution is putting on experts like they are making a defense case. It is usually the defense that brings in a host of doctors to challenge official autopsy findings. Here however the state doctor’s findings contradict the prosecutor’s case.
Conversely, Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, sounds more like the typical prosecutor noting that there is only one official autopsy and one official report on the cause of death. He told the jury “Dr. Baker found none of what are referred to as the telltale signs of asphyxiation. There was no evidence that Mr. Floyd’s airflow was restricted and he did not determine [it] to be a positional or mechanical asphyxia death .”
Nelson can rely on other aspects of the official record. When Baker went over findings in a meeting last December with the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, he specifically noted that the knee restraint was not likely to produce asphyxiation: “[I]t appeared to Dr. Baker that the pressure to the neck was coming from the back or posterior lateral portions of the back, and none of these strictures would impact breathing or cause loss of consciousness,” said a document summarizing the meeting.” He noted a study that found that placing 200 pounds of weight or more on a healthy person did not have an “observable impact on breathing.”
Instead, Baker cited the drugs in the system as well as the 75-80% narrowing of coronary arteries that “put him at risk for a sudden cardiac arrest.” The record of the meeting states “Dr. Baker offered that one possibility for the pathway of Floyd’s death is that Floyd’s heart was starting to fail because of the stress, drugs, enlarged heart, and [heart] disease . . . He said that once the heart starts to fail … one of the symptoms is the perception that you cannot breathe.”
After those findings were released, Baker’s office had to be put under police protections due to threats to him and his staff.
By focusing the jury on the autopsy report, and asking them to effectively dismiss the conclusions of the only official report, the prosecutors increase the chances of a hung jury and even an acquittal. I previously expressed reservations about the push for murder charges because the case is better suited for a manslaughter case. If a jury feels the prosecutors have over-charged a case, it can produce a loss of credibility in the case. When you add an argument to dismiss the state’s own autopsy findings, you risk magnifying such skepticism or mistrust with jury members.