If one were to try to get into the heads of the jury, you might suspect that they were still mesmerized by yesterday’s proceedings and the Irish lilt of pulmonologist Dr. Martin Tobin. Today’s proceedings were a bit monotonous but quite revelatory as the defense may have been able to sow a bit of doubt.
As noted by Court TV prognosticators, in most criminal murder trials the medical examiner is leaned on heavily to give the cause of death. But in this instance, it seems the prosecution called Hennepin County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker somewhat reluctantly. It’s likely because during the prosecution’s questioning he did not seem to be playing for the home team.
Under normal circumstances, the county medical examiner’s office works hand-in-glove with the county prosecutor’s office.
The prosecution’s first witness was forensic pathologist Dr. Lindsey Thomas, a retired Hennepin County medical examiner. She at one point trained Dr. Baker. She testified that Floyd died of “asphyxia or low oxygen.”
She told prosecuting attorney Jerry Blackwell that Floyd was in a position—because of the subdual restraint and repression—where he could not get oxygen. “The video evidence shows Floyd in a position where he was unable to adequately breathe,” said Thomas.
“What I observed was that this was not a sudden death, which is what I would have expected if it had been an arrhythmia, and not what I expect from a fentanyl death where someone is sleepy and just passes away,” said Dr. Thomas.
Dr. Thomas also ruled out cardiac arrest as a cause of death, as well as methamphetamine, which she said causes more of a sudden death.
She pointed out that Floyd’s heart stopped because of the actions of the law enforcement officers who were holding him down.
Most of the rest of the day was spent with lawyers questioning and cross-examining Dr. Baker.
Baker was the subject of early controversy in the Floyd case when he wrote in his report explaining the cause of death, that Floyd died from a fentanyl overdose and could have just have easily have died sitting on his couch at home.
Baker’s findings so outraged some in the community that county officials put up fencing and barricades around his office.
When asked by Blackwell, “How did the subdual restraint by law enforcement cause his death?” Baker noted that it was Floyd’s underlying heart disease and that in his opinion, “Mr. Floyd had a heart that needed more oxygen because of its size.” He added that being pinned to the ground would cause extra stress and a rush of adrenaline. He summed up his answer by saying, “In my opinion, the law enforcement restraint was more than Mr. Floyd’s heart could take.”
Baker waffled quite a bit when asked his opinion about where Derek Chauvin’s knee was on Floyd’s body. He said it appeared on his back, close to his neck and on his neck.
The medical examiner was clear when asked under cross-examination by defense attorney Eric Nelson if the placement of Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck would cut off the deceased’s airway. Baker answered, “In my opinion, it would not.”
However, the medical examiner absolutely refused to back the conclusion that many of the prosecution’s previous medical experts have asserted and that is: Floyd died of asphyxiation.
Dr. Baker appeared to be shying away from making definitive statements.
When asked about hypoxia and whether being high on fentanyl would cause a person to breathe faster, he said, in essence, that he was not a pulmonologist. In more than one instance during cross-examination when pressed by Nelson, Baker said in effect: “I can’t diagnose any of these things.” And as a result, he deferred quite a bit to other experts, primarily toxicologists and pulmonologists.
Also notable during Dr. Baker’s cross-examination by Nelson, Baker said rather confidently that Floyd “survived and made it to the hospital.” Previous testimony seemed to make it clear that Floyd was medically dead upon arrival at the hospital. One of the EMTs when asked if they were able to revive Floyd made it clear on the stand that they were not able to bring Floyd back to life before reaching the hospital.
After cross-examination by Nelson, during re-direct, Blackwell ended Friday’s session by asking Baker to give his opinion on why Floyd died. Baker said that he sticks to what he wrote originally and that is Floyd died as a result of “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual restraint and neck compression.”
The prosecution is expected to rest their case early next week by calling on another medical expert and a Floyd family member who will offer a “spark of life” testimony.
Mel Reeves was the community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder until he passed away on January 6, 2022. He had a long and storied history working at the MSR.
Find more about Reeve’s life and legacy here: spokesman-recorder.com/category/remembering-mel-reeves.