Drugs, heart disease contributed to, but didn't cause, George Floyd's death, medical examiner testifies

Dr. Andrew Baker, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on George Floyd, testified Friday that while heart disease and drugs had contributed to Floyd’s death, the root cause was the restraint used by then-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.

Baker, who was called by the prosecution, stuck firmly to the conclusion he reached last year, that Floyd died on May 25, 2020, from “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.”

In other words, Floyd’s “heart and his lungs stopped” while he was being restrained by Chauvin and two other Minneapolis police officers, according to Baker’s testimony at Chauvin’s murder trial.

The Hennepin County medical examiner testified that while he believes heart disease, hypertension and the use of fentanyl and methamphetamine played a role in Floyd’s death, the primary cause was the neck compression and what occurred in Floyd’s body as a result of the use of force by Chauvin.

Dr. Andrew Baker, Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office, testifies in the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis, MN. on April 9, 2021. (Court TV via Reuters Video)
Dr. Andrew Baker of the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office testifies in the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis on Friday. (Court TV via Reuters Video)

Baker explained that Floyd had severe underlying heart disease and hypertension, which means that his heart weighed more than it should for a healthy person of his age and, as a result, he needed more oxygen. An altercation that involves physical restraint, Baker said, is “going to cause stress hormones, like adrenaline, to pour out into your body, like adrenaline, and it’s going to ask your heart to beat faster and ask your body for more oxygen so that it can get through that altercation.”

“The neck compression was just more than Floyd could take by virtue of those heart conditions,” Baker added.

Baker’s initial findings that Floyd’s body showed evidence of “fentanyl intoxication” and “recent methamphetamine use” drew a public backlash from those who feared that Chauvin’s defense would frame the autopsy in a way to try to exonerate their client.

Evidence seen in during the Derek Chauvin trial on April 9, 2021. (Court TV via Reuters Video)
Evidence seen during the Derek Chauvin trial on Friday. (Court TV via Reuters Video)

After Baker’s office completed its autopsy in May, Floyd’s family commissioned two independent examiners to conduct a separate autopsy, according to the family’s attorneys. Their findings concluded that Floyd died from asphyxiation from sustained pressure.

Under questioning from prosecuting attorney Jerry Blackwell, Baker said that the “significant conditions” listed under the cause of death were things that may have contributed to Floyd’s death but were not the underlying cause.

Baker also said that, apart from the preexisting heart issues, Floyd was “generally healthy on May 25, before the events of that evening.”

Defense attorney Eric Nelson has used the county medical examiner’s report to argue that Chauvin’s use of force was not the sole cause of Floyd’s death. During his opening statement on March 29, Nelson told the jury they would hear several interviews between law enforcement and Baker that would show that Baker “found none of what are referred to as the telltale signs of asphyxiation.”

Eric Nelson, a member of the defense, in the trial of Derek Chauvin, questions a witness on April 8, 2021. (Court TV via Reuters Video)
Eric Nelson, a member of the defense in the trial of Derek Chauvin, questions a witness on Thursday. (Court TV via Reuters Video)

“There were no bruises on Floyd’s neck,” Nelson said. “There was no petechial hemorrhaging, which can indicate asphyxia. There was no evidence that Floyd’s airflow was restricted.”

But multiple medical experts have since testified that Floyd died due to a lack of oxygen. On Thursday, Dr. Bill Smock, an emergency medicine physician who is not connected to the medical examiner’s office or the police, testified that Floyd died from “positional asphyxia,” which means there was no oxygen in his body.

Dr. Martin Tobin, a physician who specializes in pulmonology and critical care medicine, said Floyd’s breathing was restricted so severely that it was almost “as if a surgeon had gone in and removed” Floyd’s lung.

Evidence seen in during the Derek Chauvin trial on April 8, 2021. (Court TV via Reuters Video)
Evidence seen during Derek Chauvin’s murder trial on Thursday. (Court TV via Reuters Video)

Earlier Friday, Dr. Lindsey Thomas, a forensic pathologist who also testified as an expert, said that she ruled out a drug overdose as the cause of death. All three doctors reviewed Floyd’s medical records and the video footage of his death.

“There’s no evidence to suggest that he would have died that night,” Thomas said, except for the actions of law enforcement.

Chauvin, 45, is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd’s death.


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