ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — 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, raised questions Tuesday about 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 underlying 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. He repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe before he went motionless. The killing, which was recorded on cellphone video and posted online, triggered worldwide protests and a reexamination of racism and policing.
Inspector Katie Blackwell, the former head of training for the Minneapolis Police Department, has testified that Kueng, Lane and Thao acted in a way that was “inconsistent” with department policies, including by failing to intervene to stop Chauvin, by not rolling Floyd onto his side when he stopped resisting and by not providing medical aid when he stopped breathing.
Defense attorneys also have raised questions about whether the officers received adequate training, including on the use of neck restraints and how to intervene to stop another officer from using unreasonable force.
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.
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.
Webber contributed from Fenton, Michigan.
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