The Hennepin County medical examiner told a U.S. jury on Friday that George Floyd died when the physical force used in his arrest in Minneapolis was more than his tired heart could take.
Dr Andrew Baker, who performed the official autopsy on Floyd, is a key witness in the trial of former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin. His testimony fed the two legal teams as they continue to argue over the exact medical circumstances of Floyd’s death.
Chauvin is accused with second and third degree murder and manslaughter, for kneeling on Floyd’s neck for about nine minutes as the 46-year-old repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe. A bystander filmed the incident and posted it online, sparking global protests calling for racial justice. Chauvin pleaded not guilty.
Prior to Baker’s testimony, prosecutors called three medical experts at the booth who said Floyd died of asphyxiation – lack of oxygen. The defense said in opening statements that Floyd died of a cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, combined with his ingestion of fentanyl and methamphetamine.
The death certificate, which Baker filled out, listed Floyd’s cause of death as “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement, restraint and neck compression.”
“He had very serious underlying heart disease,” Baker said. “He has a heart that needs more oxygen because of its size, and he’s limited in his ability to step up and deliver more oxygen on demand.”
The kind of altercation that happened between Floyd and Chauvin, Baker said, causes adrenaline and other stress hormones to flow through the body, causing the heart to beat faster to provide more oxygen. .
“In my opinion, the law enforcement subdual restraint and compression of the neck was just more than Mr. Floyd could withstand due to these heart issues,” he said.
Baker said he intentionally didn’t watch the video before starting the exam because he didn’t want it to influence his impressions.
But Baker also said he could have decided, but didn’t, that Floyd’s mode of death was “natural” or “accidental.” Instead, he ruled it was homicide. For a medical examiner, this does not imply criminal culpability, but it means “death at the hands of another”.
He also noted that while fentanyl and methamphetamine contributed to Floyd’s death, they were not direct causes.
Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, asked Baker during cross-examination if, after the autopsy, he told the chief prosecutor for Hennepin County, where Minneapolis is located, that “under different circumstances you determined it was a fentanyl overdose ”.
“I don’t remember specifically what I said to the county attorney, but it almost certainly went like this: If Mr. Floyd was home alone in his locked residence with no evidence of trauma and the only one autopsy finding was that level of fentanyl, so yes, I would have established fentanyl toxicity, ”Baker replied.
But the interpretation of the toxicology results depends on the context, he said, and “it was the stress of this interaction. [with law enforcement] which tipped him over the edge given his underlying heart disease and toxicological status ”.
Earlier today, the prosecution called Dr. Lindsey Thomas to the stand to testify that Floyd had died of asphyxiation as a result of the force the police used to restrain him. Thomas, a former Hennepin County medical examiner who helped train Baker, said that “there is no evidence to suggest that he died that night, except for interactions with the forces of order ”.