Medical Examiner Testimony Complicates Cases for and Against Chauvin

The report and Friday afternoon testimony of Hennepin County’s chief medical examiner didn’t slot neatly into the prosecution’s case or that of Derek Chauvin’s defense team.

Hennepin County Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker testifies Friday in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin over the death of George Floyd. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — The second week of Derek Chauvin’s murder trial for the death of George Floyd wrapped up with testimony from the medical examiner who performed Floyd’s autopsy, a pivotal witness whose take on the case created difficulties for both sides. 

Prosecutors called Dr. Andrew Baker, chief Hennepin County medical examiner, to the stand just after discussing his findings from Floyd’s autopsy with one of his former mentors, Dr. Lindsey Thomas. Thomas, who retired from the medical examiner’s office in 2017 and now does consulting work around the country, affirmed the opinion presented by several other medical experts on Thursday that Floyd died of asphyxia. After she left the stand, however, Baker presented a different account of Floyd’s death. 

Baker has maintained since the conclusion of his autopsy that Floyd’s death resulted from “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” He made no findings, he said, supporting asphyxia. 

Baker reaffirmed that belief on Friday afternoon, but noted that Chauvin’s restraint of Floyd was still critical to his death. “He has a heart that already needs more oxygen than a normal heart because of its size,” he said, adding that a coronary artery occlusion made that still more difficult. Encounters with law enforcement, he continued, “are going to cause stress hormones to go out into your body, specifically adrenaline.” 

“In my opinion, the law enforcement subdual, restraint and neck compression was just more than Mr. Floyd could take,” Baker concluded. 

That difference in opinion from the prosecution’s other medical experts made Baker a tricky witness for the prosecution to handle, but not a slam-dunk for the defense. He maintained throughout his testimony that Floyd’s encounter with police was a critical factor in his death. 

“It was the stress of that interaction that tipped him over the edge given his underlying heart disease and toxicological status,” Baker said, paying mention to the fentanyl and methamphetamine found in Floyd’s blood. 

That toxicological status has been crucial to Chauvin’s case, and defense attorney Eric Nelson has asked several experts about the possibility that Floyd died, in whole or in part, from a fentanyl overdose. Baker came down hard on that idea, along with another of Nelson’s theories which holds that heart issues killed Floyd. 

“Mr. Floyd’s use of fentanyl did not cause the subdual or the neck restraint,” Baker said on cross-examination. “His history of heart disease did not cause the subdual or the neck restraint.” 

He later affirmed that law enforcement subdual remained his “top-line” cause of death for Floyd. 

Defense attorney Eric Nelson questions Dr. Andrew Baker on Friday in the trial of Derek Chauvin. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

Nelson and the attorneys defending Chauvin’s colleagues Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane have consistently cited Baker’s findings and statements to law enforcement on Floyd’s death in court filings as being directly opposed to the prosecution’s case.

In testimony, however, Baker complicated some of Nelson’s takes on his words. Discussion of one conversation in particular, in which he told staff at Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman’s office that under other circumstances he might have called Floyd’s death an overdose, got the usually short-winded and cautious Baker to expound a bit. 

“I don’t recall specifically what I told the county attorney, but it almost certainly went something like this: had Mr. Floyd been found 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,” he said. “Again, interpretation of drug concentrations is very context-dependent.” 

He confirmed that he’d seen overdoses with much smaller levels of fentanyl toxicity than Floyd’s, but reiterated that context and medical history is important. 

Baker also stopped short of openly refuting the possibility that Floyd asphyxiated. In the course of his examination, which he noted he performed before watching video of Floyd’s deadly arrest in order to avoid injecting bias into his work, he said he hadn’t found any overt signs that Floyd died from a lack of oxygen. He did, however, often emphasize that he was not an expert on the mechanisms of breathing, air intake or lung capacity, and said that those questions would be better directed at a pulmonologist. 

Those deferrals, brief as they were, could make a serious impact on jurors. Dr. Martin Tobin, one of the world’s leading pulmonologists, testified on Thursday that he believed Floyd died of asphyxiation based on his appraisal of Floyd’s breathing and movements on bystander and body-camera video. His testimony, pool reporters noted, had most jurors following along with his demonstrations of throat anatomy, and even Nelson joked about being “taken” by his Irish accent. 

Seeming to recognize this, Nelson challenged Baker on his refusals to speculate, saying that he had been more forthcoming in earlier testimony. Baker thought otherwise. “I’m gonna say I said pulmonologist at least a half a dozen times in that testimony,” he said of his second appearance in grand-jury proceedings. 

Following Baker’s testimony, Judge Peter Cahill put an early end to the week. Testimony is set to resume on Monday with another witness, who he noted was a medical doctor. Monday will also likely mark the end of the state’s case. Nelson has requested to call back a witness the state brought to court earlier in the week, asking that she return on Tuesday.

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