Derek Chauvin’s Defense Just Called an Expert Witness Who’s Being Sued Over a Black Teen’s Death

Nineteen-year-old Anton Black died in a “chillingly similar manner” to George Floyd, according to the lawsuit.
April 14, 2021, 6:53pm
Dr. David Fowler testifies Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Dr. David Fowler testifies Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Court TV via AP, Pool)

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Derek Chauvin’s defense just called an expert witness who’s being sued by the family of a 19-year-old Black man who died under the weight of several cops, just as George Floyd did.

On Wednesday, the 13th day of Chauvin’s murder trial, Dr. David Fowler, a career forensic pathologist who served as Maryland’s chief medical examiner between 2002 and 2019, took the stand for the defense. In 2018, Fowler ruled that the death of Anton Black, who died after being handcuffed and having his legs and body restrained by multiple cops in Greensboro, Maryland, was accidental, as first reported by The Intercept

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No officers were charged in Black’s death. In December of 2020, his family sued Fowler and 13 other parties, for wrongful death and civil rights violations.

In September 2018, Black was experiencing a mental health crisis while walking with his 12-year-old cousin. When a white couple noticed Black roughing up his cousin, they called police at the boy’s request.

When police found Black near his home, four different officers handcuffed him and used their weight to restrain the distressed man facedown on the ground as his mother watched. After three minutes, Black used his final words to tell his mother “I love you” before being declared dead soon after.

The lawsuit notes that Black died in a “chillingly similar manner,” to Floyd, who died while being arrested for using a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store in South Minneapolis. Like Floyd, Black was unarmed, cried out for his mother in his final moments, and verbalized to police that he couldn’t breathe.

In his autopsy, however, Fowler determined the death was likely the result of the stress-induced during his struggle with police, combined with underlying bipolar diagnosis and heart issues.

While on the stand in Hennepin County Court in downtown Minneapolis Wednesday, Fowler would echo much of his findings when discussing Floyd’s death. 

“In my opinion, Mr. Floyd had a sudden cardiac arrhythmia due to his atherosclerotic and hypertensive heart disease, you can write that down multiple different ways, during his restraint and subdual by police,” he said. 

Fowler said that from his analysis, Floyd’s pre-existing health issues, including an enlarged heart and hypertension, as well as his prior use of methamphetamine and fentanyl, that likely caused the narrowing of his blood vessels and ultimately, his death. He also testified that carbon monoxide emissions from the vehicle near Floyd at the time of his arrest played a significant role in his death.

Fowler’s testimony aligned perfectly with what the defense said during opening statements: that Chauvin placing a knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, which set off months of international protests against police brutality,  did not cause Floyd’s death in police custody.

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Fowler’s theory goes against the findings of Floyd’s autopsy, which ruled his death a homicide—meaning at the hands of someone else—by asphyxiation. The report included his heart disease and the 11 nanograms of fentanyl in his system but specifically noted the drugs did not cause his death. Medical experts who testified for the prosecution also refuted that his pre-existing conditions or an overdose killed him. 

Fowler also helped the defense argue that the National Association of Medical Examiners may consider deaths due to positional restraints induced by law enforcement as “homicide,” that doesn’t necessarily mean murder. Citing the association’s 2002 guide for manner of death, he argued that homicide is a neutral term that should have no ramifications in court.

“The manners of death are virtually unique to the United States Of America,” he said. “These were put on death certificates by the Center for Disease Control in order to gather information on how Americans die for epidemiology purposes and to study and try to prevent deaths. They are not meant to usurp any kind of legal process. In fact, in many circumstances, regardless of what the medical examiner puts on a death certificate in the way of manner, the legal system can and will act in a completely independent and different format.”

Between 2013 and 2019, 30 percent of police-involved deaths reviewed by Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner were ruled accidents, undetermined, or because of natural causes, according to state data analyzed by The Intercept.

Despite his legal problems, Fowler, a 1983 graduate from the University of Cape Town, has been the defense’s most prominent witness in the case so far. He spent more than three hours on the stand Wednesday, when just a day earlier, many defense witnesses seemed to bolster the state’s arguments against Chauvin

But the state managed to dismantle a number of Fowler’s points during cross-examination. Special prosecutor Jerry Blackwell brought up the retraction of a work by a Dr. Donald Reay, which Fowler cited to prove that restrictive prone positioning has little relation to asphyxia.

Blackwell would also get Fowler to agree that Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than five minutes after he passed out. He then agreed that it only takes four minutes of continued restriction of airways to cause irreversible brain damage.

The prosecution would also go after his credibility to declare that drugs and heart conditions would have induced Floyd’s death.

“You’re not a toxicologist or have a degree in toxicology?” Blackwell asked.

“That is correct I am not a toxicologist,” Fowler said.

“You’re not a pulmonologist or a respiratory physiologist, true?” Blackwell later added.

“That is true,” Fowler responded.

When reached for comment, an associate of Fowler told the Washington Post that the former medical examiner wouldn’t be commenting on the pending litigation in Maryland due to his involvement in the Chauvin trial.

Chauvin is charged with second- and third-degree murder as well as second-degree manslaughter. He faces up to 65 years in prison if convicted.

Update 4:40 p.m. ET: This text has been updated with information from the prosecution’s cross-examination of Dr. David Fowler.