MINNEAPOLIS — The medical examiner who performed George Floyd’s autopsy testified Friday that the pressure police applied to the Black man’s neck and back while he was pinned to the ground proved more than his already stressed heart could withstand.
Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker testified that Floyd’s coronary arteries were narrowed, indicating “very severe underlying heart disease.” Floyd also had “hypertensive heart disease, meaning his heart weighed more than it should,” Baker said.
“Now, in the context of an altercation with other people, that involves things like physical restraint, that involves things like being held to the ground,” Baker testified. “Those events are going to cause stress hormones to pour out into your body, specifically things like adrenaline. And what that adrenaline is going to do is it’s going to ask your heart to beat faster. It’s going to ask your body for more oxygen so that you can get through that altercation.
“And in my opinion, the law enforcement subdual restraint and the neck compression was just more than Mr. Floyd could take by virtue of those heart conditions,” said Baker, who ruled Floyd’s death a homicide.
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was charged with murder after video showed him, at the time serving on the Minneapolis force, with his knee on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds. Chauvin’s defense has argued that Floyd died because of his compromised health and drug use, not Chauvin’s knee on his neck, making his cause of death a central question in the case.
Testifying Friday, Baker rebutted a core part of that argument. His autopsy report last year noted that heart disease as well as fentanyl and methamphetamine use were all noted in Floyd at his autopsy. Baker testified Friday that these were “not direct causes” but “contributing causes” to Floyd’s death.
“I would still classify it as a homicide today,” Baker said.
Baker’s remarks capped an arduous second week of testimony in the case, which began with several Minneapolis police officers taking the stand to rebuke their former colleague and ended with medical experts who have conducted thousands of autopsies placing the blame for Floyd’s death on the police.
The week was bookended by two of the most widely anticipated individual testimonies, those of Baker and the police chief who fired Chauvin.
Using those men’s accounts, prosecutors sought to push against what may be Chauvin’s two primary defenses in the case: that he was following his training and that Floyd’s death could be blamed on causes other than the actions of the former officer.
Chauvin’s defense is expected to begin fully making its case next week, calling its own witnesses and seeking to sway jurors before they are sequestered to begin deliberations. Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Baker’s testimony also offered a reminder that Chauvin’s legal jeopardy may not end when the jury here renders a verdict. Baker said he has twice testified before a federal grand jury investigating Floyd’s death.
A person close to the case said a federal civil rights investigation into Floyd’s death is looking at Chauvin as well as the other officers at the scene on May 25, 2020. Those officers — Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — also were fired and are to stand trial this summer on charges of aiding and abetting murder.
Baker testified that he conducted Floyd’s autopsy the day after his death. He said that to avoid influencing his finding, he had specifically chosen not to watch the viral video of Floyd struggling under Chauvin’s knee until after he had completed the autopsy.
Baker declared Floyd’s death a homicide in June, deeming the cause of death to be “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” Baker explained that “complicating” means it occurred in the presence of.
Baker’s report also noted heart disease, fentanyl use, methamphetamine use and Floyd’s recent coronavirus infection as significant conditions.
Chauvin’s defense has argued that the death of Floyd should be blamed on drug his use and his health problems. In a filing last year, they wrote that Floyd “most likely died from an opioid overdose.”
Medical experts disputed that idea, particularly the suggestion that Floyd died of a fentanyl overdose, describing his actions in the widely seen video as incompatible with the opioid’s effects.
Also Friday, Lindsey Thomas, a consulting forensic pathologist testified that in her view, “the activities of the law enforcement officers resulted in Mr. Floyd’s death.”
Thomas, an unpaid expert witness for the prosecution, said that on the basis of the video she reviewed, Floyd’s death was “not a sudden death,” nor was it “the type of death that has been reported in fentanyl overdose” cases.
Fentanyl-related deaths, she said, tend to be “peaceful” and not involve struggles like those seen in the viral video of Floyd’s encounter with police.
“There’s no evidence to suggest he would have died that night except for the interactions with law enforcement,” Thomas said.
During Thomas’s testimony, color photographs from Floyd’s autopsy were distributed to the jurors and others in the courtroom for review, presumably to avoid having the graphic images projected on a large screen visible to people watching the live stream of the proceedings. The photos included close-ups of Floyd’s face, shoulders and hands, showing scrapes and abrasions.
The photos were distributed again when Baker was on the stand. Chauvin placed the images on his lap, looking at them under the table and showing no visible reaction.
Friday’s testimony unfolded with a new visitor to the courtroom. For the first time since the trial began last month, someone sat in a seat reserved for a member of Chauvin’s family.
The courtroom’s occupancy is limited because of the coronavirus, with one seat reserved for Floyd’s family and one for Chauvin’s. An unidentified woman occupied the Chauvin seat Friday.
At various points during the day, the seat reserved for Floyd’s family was filled by his brothers Rodney and Philonise. A Hennepin County deputy sat in a chair between the seats reserved for the two families.
Baker’s appearance was seen as key to countering the defense’s attempts to break what legal experts call the “chain of causation” connecting Chauvin’s use of force and Floyd’s death.
During his testimony, Baker reiterated what court filings say he has expressed before: that if Floyd were found dead at home, with no other factors and that amount of fentanyl in his system, the death could have been deemed an overdose.
But Baker also noted in his testimony that Floyd was not found in those circumstances.
“Mr. Floyd’s use of fentanyl did not cause the subdural or neck restraint. His heart disease did not cause the subdural or the neck restraint,” Baker said.
Baker also listed several other factors he said did not cause Floyd’s death, including the coronavirus, for which Floyd had tested positive several weeks before dying, and a tumor discovered in his stomach during the autopsy.
Eric Nelson, Chauvin’s attorney, asked whether the placement of his client’s knee would have “anatomically cut off” Floyd’s airway. Baker responded, “In my opinion, it would not.”
At one point, Baker discussed a video call he had with law enforcement officials from the Justice Department, recounting that he told them: “It was the stress of that interaction [with police] that tipped him over the edge.”
Legal experts said the defense’s invocation of Floyd’s drug use fits a pattern seen in other prosecutions of police, in which officers’ attorneys will point to drug use or other perceived issues in the backgrounds of the person who died.
The prosecution sought preemptively to rebut the defense’s argument by calling Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, to the stand last week to testify about their struggles with opioid addiction and to make clear his tolerance for the drugs.
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Berman and Bernstein reported from Washington. The Washington Post’s Abigail Hauslohner, Timothy Bella, Hannah Knowles and Paulina Villegas contributed to this report.