Chauvin trial: Former Maryland medical examiner says Floyd's manner of death 'undetermined'

A man behind a desk speaks.
Dr. David Fowler, a forensic pathologist, testifies during the trial of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on Wednesday.
Screenshot of Court TV video

MPR News is streaming live coverage of the trial. Some images or material discussed during the trial will be disturbing to many viewers. Watch the morning proceedings here. Watch the afternoon’s proceedings here. Court is expected to resume around 9:15 a.m. Thursday.

3 things to know:

  • A former medical examiner who is the subject of a wrongful-death lawsuit involving the police killing of a Black teen in Maryland testified that George Floyd died of cardiac arrhythmia and a host of contributing factors

  • Defense use-of-force expert testifies Derek Chauvin used “objectively reasonable” force against Floyd

  • Case could go to the jury as early as Monday

Updated: 3:46 p.m.

Derek Chauvin's defense attorney called a medical expert to the stand Wednesday who concluded that George Floyd’s manner of death is "undetermined," countering the Hennepin County medical examiner's ruling that it was a homicide.

A key witness for the defense, retired Maryland medical examiner Dr. David Fowler testified that Floyd died of cardiac arrhythmia during the police restraint, but that methamphetamine and fentanyl, carbon monoxide exposure from the squad car, tumors and adrenaline all contributed to his death.

"You put all of those [contributing factors] together, it's very difficult to say which of those is the most accurate," he said. "So, I would fall back to ‘undetermined.’"

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Fowler’s testimony is meant to sow doubt on a parade of medical experts testifiying for the state who said police actions — including Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck — are what killed him. He pointed to Floyd’s enlarged heart, narrowed coronary artery and drug use and said his struggle with police led to an adrenaline rush and a "fight-or-flight" response which speeds up the heart.

Under cross-examination, Fowler said sudden cardiac arrest is not the same as sudden death, adding that there was a period of time between when Floyd's heart stopped and when he died. That gave prosecutor Jerry Blackwell an opening.

“Are you suggesting that though Mr. Floyd may have been in cardiac arrest, there was a time when he may have been revived because he wasn't dead yet?" Blackwell asked.

"Immediate medical attention for a person whose gone into cardiac arrest may well reverse that process, yes," said Fowler.

When asked by Blackwell if Floyd should have received immediate medical attention, Fowler responded, "As a physician, I would agree."

Blackwell also got Fowler to admit there were no data or tests that showed Floyd was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning — a notion that emerged for the first time during the trial.

Last year, Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker determined that the manner of Floyd's death was homicide.  But while questioned by defense attorney Eric Nelson, Fowler said that the term “homicide” is used in the medical examiner field to classify deaths for purposes of research and not legal analysis.

Though the jury in this case won't hear about Fowler's legal troubles, his testimony could be viewed as controversial because he's facing a lawsuit by the family of Anton Black, an African American 19-year-old who was killed in a similar police encounter in Maryland in 2018. Fowler classified his death as an accident.

Other medical experts earlier testified for the prosecution that the restraint of Floyd by police officers caused low oxygen levels that led to his death. Bystander video of the day showed Chauvin with his knee pressed against Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as the man lay handcuffed and facedown on the pavement in police custody, pleading that he couldn’t breathe. He was arrested after allegedly trying to use a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes.

Chauvin, who was fired from the force, faces murder and manslaughter charges in Floyd’s killing.

The jury could start deliberating the case as early as Monday.

Request for acquittal denied

Earlier in the day, Nelson asked for a judgment of acquittal, arguing the state has failed to submit sufficient evidence that Chauvin’s use of force in restraining Floyd led to his death. He argued that the state provided six different opinions about Chauvin’s use of force, and that they contradict one another.

Judge Peter Cahill, after hearing from Nelson and prosecutor Steve Schleicher, denied the routine request.

Nelson said Hennepin County Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker's testimony declared Floyd's death a homicide for medical purposes but that Baker also suggested that Floyd's heart couldn't handle the circumstances. The state has introduced doubt, Nelson argued.

Schleicher responded by saying that totality of evidence prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin was responsible for Floyd's death.

In denying the defense's request, Cahill said that even when there are inconsistencies, the jury is free to believe some and not others.

In a separate matter, a man who was in the car with Floyd at the time of his arrest will not testify for the defense after the man invoked his constitutional right protecting him against self-incrimination. Cahill ruled to quash the subpoena.

Nelson will not be able to call Morries Hall to the stand to talk about his interactions with Floyd the day he died and whether he seemed sleepy. His attorney Adrienne Cousins said Hall could be linked to the drugs that investigators found in the car, which could incriminate him well after this case is over.

A toxicology test turned up fentanyl in Floyd's blood. Floyd's girlfriend Courteney Ross testified earlier in the trial that Hall had provided drugs to Floyd in the past.

In Minnesota there have been a few high-profile cases over the past five years involving people charged with third-degree murder for selling drugs to people who overdose and die.

‘Objectively reasonable’ force

On Tuesday, a use-of-force expert told jurors that Chauvin acted with "objective reasonableness" in interacting with Floyd last May.

Barry Brodd, a retired California police officer who has trained police, testified for the defense that he’s concluded Chauvin was "justified" in his actions.

A man testifies in court.
Use-of-force expert Barry Brodd testifies Tuesday in ex-officer Derek Chauvin's trial.
Screenshot of Court TV video

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlines when police officers can use force, Brodd said an officer doesn’t need to wait to be attacked, just feel an imminent threat.

Asked by Nelson whether Chauvin used deadly force on Floyd, Brodd said he did not. He used an example of someone who was shocked with a Taser by an officer who then hits their head and dies, which Brodd said qualifies as an accidental death.

Brodd also testified that he didn’t believe placing someone in a “prone position” to be a use of force. He said that the officers in Floyd’s case would have been justified in applying even more force due to Floyd’s resistance.

Brodd also told the court that as a crowd grows and becomes louder, officers are trained to consider where the biggest threat could come from. Brodd said Chauvin threatening at one point to pepper spray bystanders showed he thought the crowd was a bigger threat at that point than Floyd. Throughout the trial, Nelson has sought to show that officers faced a hostile crowd.

Summing up his conclusion, Brodd said he "felt that officer Chauvin’s interactions with Mr. Floyd were following his training, following current practices in policing and were objectively reasonable."

The defense has repeatedly pressed these points with witnesses before the jurors. 

‘Struggling to breathe is not active resistance, is it?’

Brodd admitted to prosecutor Schleicher that the prone position could be considered a use of force if it inflicted pain on Floyd.

“Using your face to lift your body off the pavement, that could cause pain?” Schleicher asked Brodd, who agreed that it could.

“The only struggling you saw Mr. Floyd doing after he was restrained is he was struggling to breathe, is that right?” Schleicher asked Brodd. 

“I don’t know. Was he struggling or was he struggling to catch a breath? I can’t tell,” Brodd said.

“In any event, struggling to breathe is not active resistance, is it?” Schleicher asked Brodd. 

“To me, no. To the officer it may be,” Brodd responded.

Brodd also testified under cross examination that the dangers of positional asphyxia for people in the prone position are well-known, especially for people who have used drugs.

Trial basics

Two men sit behind a desk.
Ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin (right), charged in the killing of George Floyd, right, and his defense attorney Eric Nelson take notes on Thursday.
Screenshot of Court TV video

Who’s who: A look at the key players in the trial.

Need to know: Key questions about the trial, answered.

What we know about the jurors: The 12 jurors and two alternates picked to review the case include a chemist, a youth volunteer, a cardiac nurse and an IT professional.

Chauvin's lawyer is outnumbered, but has help: No fewer than four attorneys have appeared for the prosecution so far, compared to a single attorney to defend Derek Chauvin.

Legion of Chauvin prosecutors, each with own role: Viewers may be struck by the array of prosecutors taking turns presenting their case. The choice of who does what is no accident.

MPR News on its coverage: Nancy Lebens, the newsroom’s deputy managing editor, answered audience questions about our reporting plans.

George Floyd and his legacy

People stand arm in arm and pray in front of a large building.
George Floyd's brother Terrence Floyd (second from left) Rachel Noerdlinger (left), attorney Ben Crump and the Rev. Al Sharpton (right) pray during a press conference outside of the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Remembering George Floyd, the man: Before he became a symbol in the fight for racial justice, friends say George Floyd was a “gentle giant” who sought a fresh start.

Making George Floyd Square: Here’s how the site of George Floyd’s killing — 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis — is being reshaped.

Rescuing the plywood — and memorializing a movement: Two Black women are leading the effort to preserve the murals painted on storefront boards in the Twin Cities.

Calls for change: Here’s what some activists tell MPR News about their experiences with race in Minnesota, why they march and what they hope for the future.

Read more

Community organizer Jay Webb talks to kids at George Floyd Square
Community organizer Jay Webb talks to kids at George Floyd Square during the People's Power Love Fest on Sunday in Minneapolis.
Kerem Yücel for MPR News

Will ex-officer on trial for Floyd death testify? Testifying may be Derek Chauvin's only hope of rebutting video at the heart of prosecutors' case that shows Chauvin pinning George Floyd for about 9 1/2 minutes. But doing so would also open Chauvin to potentially devastating cross-examination by prosecutors. (The Associated Press)

What the Chauvin trial feels like for the neighbors keeping vigil in George Floyd Square: People in the community talk about Black liberation, “vulturistic” visitors and why there’s not a TV showing the trial. (Sahan Journal)

How the Spokesman-Recorder is covering the Chauvin trial from the Black perspective: '[Other media are] looking at it as news, and we're looking at it as like, we deal with this daily.” (NPR)

Racism is making us sick. How can equity in medicine help us heal? Two doctors and a medical researcher talk about how racism affects their patients’ health — and how racism in medicine leads to inadequate medical education and poor care. (Sahan Journal)

NPR’s live blog: The latest from the murder trial of Derek Chauvin.

Questions about the Chauvin trial? Ask us