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The George Floyd Autopsy

            What would have happened if there had been no video of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd on May 25, 2020, with his knee on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes?  Videos made by witnesses and security cameras vividly showed how three officers helped Chauvin restrain Floyd and kept bystanders from intervening. However, before those videos surfaced, the Minneapolis Police Department issued a statement that: “After Floyd got out of his car, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.”  The Chief Medical Examiner for the County did determine that Floyd’s death was a homicide, but also speculated that Floyd suffered from “significant conditions,” such as drug use and a heart condition that may have increased his likelihood of death.  At Chauvin’s trial, the medical examiner testified, “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.”

            Attorneys for Floyd’s family commissioned an independent autopsy that found that there were no such “contributing” factors.  More specifically, they found that the cause of death was not a heart attack (which could have “contributing factors”) but rather “mechanical asphyxia” – meaning the flow of oxygen was cut off so Floyd, like he told the officers, simply could not breathe.  As Martin Tobin testified at the criminal trial, given the force placed on Floyd’s neck: “A healthy person subjected to what Mr. Floyd was subjected to would have died.”

            It was not an aberration that the medical examiner’s determinations regarding cause of death in a police killing were hotly disputed.  There is a long, troubling history of police labeling Black men killed by police as criminals or drug users.  Forensic evidence has played a troubling role in providing faulty support for such claims.  All too often, questionable medical examiner’s findings have been shared with the public and our courts.  The coroner and medical examination field is rife with bias and poor methods.  A landmark 2009 National Academy of Sciences report called death investigations in the United States “fragmented” as a system and “deficient” in its practices.  The Floyd case is just one high profile example of why forensic reform is needed to accomplish police reform.  We turn next turns to the structure of medical examiners and crime labs, a larger source of the problem.