The doctor who performed George Floyd's autopsy and ruled his death a homicide offered in court a view of drugs and underlying health conditions as being more significant factors to consider than did other medical experts who previously testified in the trial of Derek Chauvin.
Dr. Andrew Baker testified on Friday, April 9, that he still believes that Floyd's direct cause of death was "cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression" but, in a break with his peers, called Floyd's heart conditions and drug ingestion "contributing causes." A day earlier, jurors heard testimony that cast the level of methamphetamine and fentanyl found in Floyd's system after he died as relatively low.
Having heart disease and being restrained by Minneapolis Police Department officers, Baker said, in the end "was just more than Mr. Floyd could take."
Testimony from Baker, the medical examiner for Hennepin County, lends some support to the arguments of Chauvin's legal team, which has sought to emphasize the role that Floyd's drug use and overall health played in his death. Former police officer Chauvin is charged with second and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd's May 25, 2020, death in Minneapolis.
State prosecutors have by contrast attempted to portray Floyd as a generally healthy individual who, if not for Chauvin's actions, would not have died that night last year. Their view is bolstered somewhat by the testimonies of other medical experts previously heard from in the trial, who told jurors that levels of drugs found in Floyd's body were not high enough to have caused a fatal overdose or produce intoxicating effects.
Asked by prosecutors if Floyd's health conditions had anything to do with his death, Dr. Martin Tobin on Thursday, April 8, notably replied "none whatsoever." The nationally recognized expert on lung functions and critical care medicine was among several experts who testified this week and described Floyd as having been of average health, as did Baker.
How jurors will weigh Baker's view of Floyd's drug use against information they have already heard remains to be seen. The medical examiner, whose county includes more than 1 million Minnesotans, Friday said, "Had Mr. Floyd been home alone in his locked residence with no evidence of trauma, and the only autopsy finding was that fentanyl level, then yes, I would certify his death as due to fentanyl toxicity."
That idea — that Floyd could have died the night of May 25 even if he had never crossed paths with the officers — was posed by Chauvin attorney Eric Nelson to a former colleague of Baker's who testified earlier Friday. But Dr. Lindsey Thomas, who retired as the assistant medical examiner for Hennepin County in 2017, appeared to give little consideration to hypotheticals.
"There’s no evidence to suggest that he would have died that night except for the interactions with law enforcement," she earlier told the prosecution.
Had Floyd's heart conditions, which included high blood pressure and an enlarged heart, been his killer, Thomas said, his death would likely have been more sudden, which it did not appear to be. A review of footage from the night Floyd died and documentation relating to it, she said, also did not indicate that he exhibited the drowsiness typical of opioid overdoses or the spasms that accompany methamphetamine overdose.
Thomas also seemed to agree with Baker's listing of cardiopulmonary arrest, or the fatal cessation of the heart and respiratory system, as a cause of Floyd's death. But Floyd's heart came to a stop, she testified, because of asphyxia, or the lack of oxygen, a condition Baker left off his autopsy report.
Two witnesses that jurors heard from previously have said much the same thing. Chauvin's defense has sought to undermine that argument by pointing out that Floyd's autopsy found no bruises on his neck or back, a fact that Baker confirmed again Friday.
According to other witness testimonies, however, bruises do not always appear in cases of fatal asphyxiation, or even fatal strangulations. Movements Floyd made while officers pressed him to the ground the night he died, they said, indicate he was trying to lift himself up enough to draw in air.
Court is in recess until Monday morning, April 12, and will continue with additional medical expert testimony, Judge Peter Cahill said Friday after Baker was excused.