Derek Chauvin trial: Police restraint was more than George Floyd 'could take' given his condition, says medical examiner

Rozina Sabur
·4-min read
 Dr. Andrew Baker, Hennepin County Medical Examiner - Court TV
Dr. Andrew Baker, Hennepin County Medical Examiner - Court TV

The police's restraint of George Floyd was more than he "could take" given the condition of his heart, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy of the 46-year-old said on Friday.

Dr Andrew Baker was testifying in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who knelt on Mr Floyd for more than nine minutes during an arrest in Minneapolis last May.

Dr Baker, who has served as the chief medical examiner of Hennepin County, Minnesota, since 2004, said the police officers' compression of Mr Floyd's neck and the restraint of his body were the primary causes of his death.

Dr Baker was one of the most heavily anticipated witnesses to take to the stand in the closely-watched trial.

His testimony added significant heft to the prosecution's case that Mr Chauvin killed Mr Floyd when he pinned the unarmed and handcuffed black man to the ground until he could no longer beg for air.

Mr Chauvin's lawyer, Eric Nelson, has suggested that the fentanyl and methamphetamine found in Mr Floyd's system and existing heart disease might have caused his death.

But in his testimony on Friday, Dr Baker said while those factors contributed to Mr Floyd's death, they were not the cause.

Dr Baker confirmed that Mr Floyd had severe underlying heart disease and an enlarged heart that needed more oxygen than normal to function, as well as narrowing of two heart arteries.

But he added that the stress and pain of being pinned to the ground would have caused him to produce adrenaline, which asks the heart to beat even faster and supply more oxygen.

"And in my opinion, the law enforcement subdual, restraint and the neck compression was just more than Mr Floyd could take by virtue of that, those heart conditions," he said.

Other medical experts, including a world renowned breathing specialist, have gone further, testifying that Mr Floyd ultimately died from a lack of oxygen because of the way he was restrained on his stomach with his hands cuffed behind his back, his face jammed against the ground and Mr Chauvin's knee in his neck and back.

Bystander footage of Mr Floyd crying out "I can't breathe" as he was pinned to the ground by Mr Chauvin, a white police officer, on May 25 last year triggered a national reckoning on systemic racism and brutality in US policing.

Mr Chauvin, 45, is charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter and third-degree manslaughter.

The defence lawyer Mr Nelson has argued that the now-fired officer did what he was trained to do in his 19-year-career and underscored the fentanyl and methamphetamine found in Mr Floyd's system as well as his underlying health problems.

Under cross-examination, Dr Baker agreed with Mr Nelson that Mr Floyd's heart disease and drug use "played a role" in the death.

Dr Baker noted that the amount of fentanyl found in Mr Floyd's system would be a "fatal level" in other circumstances, for instance if he had been found "home alone in his locked residence with no evidence of trauma".

But he noted that interpreting levels of fentanyl is very "context dependent".

Other medical experts called as prosecution witnesses also said Mr Floyd's death was caused by being pinned to the ground.

Dr Lindsey Thomas, a now retired forensic pathologist who taught Dr Baker, testified earlier on Friday that she agreed with his findings, but appeared to go further, saying the "primary mechanism of death" was asphyxia, or insufficient oxygen.

She said she reached that conclusion mostly from the viral bystander video that showed Mr Floyd struggling to breathe.

"This is a death where both the heart and lungs stopped working. The point is, it's due to law enforcement subdual, restraint and compression," Dr Thomas said.

The National Guard stand watch outside the courthouse in Minneapolis - Stephen Maturen/Getty 
The National Guard stand watch outside the courthouse in Minneapolis - Stephen Maturen/Getty

During cross-examination, the defence asked Dr Thomas about what could cause a heart to suddenly stop beating, noting that Mr Floyd's bigger heart needed more blood and was working hard in a moment of stress and adrenaline, and that one of his arteries had a 90 per cent blockage.

Dr Thomas said any blockage over 70 per cent to 75 per cent could be used to explain death, in the absence of another cause. But she also said some people can live just fine with an artery that is fully blocked.

For the first time during the ten days of testimony, a seat designated for Mr Chauvin's family was occupied on Friday by a woman. She did not wish to be identified when approached by reporters.

Mr Chauvin's marriage ended in divorce in the months after Mr Floyd's death.

Also on Friday, Judge Peter Cahill called in a juror and questioned her about whether she had been subject to any outside influences. She told the judge she had not discussed the case with anyone and was allowed her to remain on the jury.