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Medical Examiner Says He Wasn't Pressured Over Conclusions In George Floyd Autopsy
Hennepin County’s chief medical examiner testified at the federal trial of the three officers who were on the scene with Derek Chauvin when he killed George Floyd.
The chief medical examiner who deemed George Floyd's death a homicide testified Tuesday that nobody pressured him to include anything in his autopsy report, as defense attorneys at the trial of three former Minneapolis police officers charged with violating Floyd's civil rights raised questions about how Floyd died.
Federal prosecutors say former Officers J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao violated their training by failing to act to save Floyd's life on May 25, 2020, when fellow Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on the Black man's neck for 9 1/2 minutes while Floyd was handcuffed, facedown and gasping for air. Kueng knelt on Floyd's back, Lane held his legs and Thao kept bystanders back.
Dr. Andrew Baker, Hennepin County's chief medical examiner, said Floyd died after police "subdual, restraint and neck compression" caused his heart and lungs to stop. He said heart disease and drug use were factors but not the "top line" causes. He said Floyd had an enlarged heart that needed more oxygen than normal, as well as narrowed arteries.
Thao's attorney, Robert Paule, asked Tuesday whether Baker was pressured into listing "neck compression" as a factor in his autopsy report. Baker testified that he told prosecutors on the day of Floyd's autopsy that there was no physical evidence of asphyxia, or insufficient oxygen. Prosecutors put that information in their initial complaint against Chauvin, and listed existing health conditions, police restraint and potential intoxicants as contributing factors.
Baker said his office received "hundreds" of calls, some harassing and threatening. Former Washington, D.C., medical examiner Dr. Roger Mitchell, who is an expert in in-custody deaths, also called Baker and was unhappy. Baker said the two talked about neck compression, and Mitchell also planned to publish a critical op-ed in The Washington Post. Baker said he considered Mitchell's opinion and analysis before adding neck compression to his report.
Under further questioning from prosecutors, Baker said it's not unusual to consult with fellow pathologists and none of those discussions — nor harassing phone calls — caused him to reconsider his conclusions on Floyd's cause of death.
Baker also said neck compression was a unique form of restraint that he'd never seen used before.
He also testified that Floyd said, "I can't breathe," during a struggle in a police vehicle before he was restrained. Paule asked him if it was possible that Floyd was having trouble breathing because he was experiencing a "cardiac event," to which Baker replied that it was possible — but that he couldn't say for sure.
Floyd, 46, struggled with officers when they tried to put him in the vehicle and after they put him on the ground. The killing, which was recorded on cellphone video and posted online, triggered protests worldwide and a reexamination of racism and policing.
Responding to questions from defense attorneys, Baker said he did not know of a way that Kueng's position at Floyd's buttocks or thighs or Lane's position at Floyd's feet would have affected his ability to breathe.
Later, jurors heard testimony that Lane took online classes in 2017 and 2018, when he was a Hennepin County juvenile detention officer, on how to ensure a person who's being restrained doesn't stop breathing.
Christopher Douglas, the lead safety trainer for the county's Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitation, showed jurors training slides that instruct officers to use arm bars instead of body weight and to avoid putting pressure on torsos or necks. Officers also are trained to roll someone onto their side or into a seated position after restraints are applied and monitor them for medical issues, Douglas said.
Under cross-examination, Douglas agreed with Lane's attorney, Earl Gray, that someone who is facedown should be rolled over after they calm down, but not if they are still resisting. Douglas also agreed that officers should ask if the person is on drugs and call an ambulance — things that Lane suggested or did at the scene of Floyd's arrest.
Kueng, who is Black, Lane, who is white, and Thao, who is Hmong American, are charged with willfully depriving Floyd of his constitutional rights while acting under government authority. One count against all three officers alleges that they saw that Floyd needed medical care and failed to help. A count against Thao and Kueng contends that they didn't intervene to stop Chauvin. Both counts allege that the officers' actions resulted in Floyd's death.
Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter in state court last year and pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge. Lane, Kueng and Thao also face a separate state trial in June on charges alleging that they aided and abetted murder and manslaughter.