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Maryland officials to launch review of cases handled by ex-chief medical examiner who testified in Chauvin’s defense

Former Maryland chief medical examiner David Fowler, an expert witness for former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin’s defense, testified on April 14. (Video: The Washington Post)
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A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Freddie Gray died in the back of a Baltimore police van. He died several days after his arrest, after suffering injuries in a van in police custody. The article has been corrected.

Top Maryland officials are launching an investigation of all deaths in police custody that were overseen by the state’s former chief medical examiner who testified in Derek Chauvin’s defense, the Maryland attorney general and governor’s offices announced Friday.

Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, said the office has been in internal discussions about launching a probe for the past couple of weeks and recently reached out to Gov. Larry Hogan’s office about how to proceed.

David Fowler, who was Maryland’s chief medical examiner from 2002 to 2019, served as a key witness for Chauvin, whose high-profile trial ended this week with a jury convicting the former Minneapolis officer of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd.

Fowler broke with the Hennepin County medical examiner, among others, to classify Floyd’s killing as “undetermined” and not a homicide. Floyd was seen in viral video gasping for breath while pinned under Chauvin’s knee. Fowler testified that the primary cause of Floyd’s death was cardiac arrhythmia during police restraint due to underlying heart disease. He also said that Floyd’s drug use and exposure to carbon monoxide from the police car contributed to his death.

Fowler has defended his work.

“I stand behind the outstanding work that all of our dedicated staff at the Maryland State Medical Examiner’s Office performed during my tenure as the Chief ME,” Fowler said in a statement Friday afternoon.

He also stressed that in the Chauvin case, his “opinion was formulated after the collaboration of thirteen other highly experienced colleagues in multiple disciplines” and wrote that “our evaluation set an ethical standard for the work needed in sensitive litigation.”

Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell questioned testimony by former Maryland chief medical examiner David Fowler during cross-examination on April 14. (Video: The Washington Post)

The attorney general’s push for a review was expedited this week after he became aware of an open letter penned by D.C.’s former chief medical examiner Roger Mitchell, which said Fowler’s testimony was “baseless” and “revealed obvious bias.”

Derek Chauvin’s witnesses include former Maryland medical examiner being sued over ‘chillingly similar’ case

The letter called for state and federal investigations into Fowler’s medical license along with a review of the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner during his 17-year tenure.

“We agree that it is appropriate for independent experts to review reports issued by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner regarding deaths in custody,” Coombs said in a statement in response to the letter. “We are already in conversations with the Governor’s Office about the need for such a review, and have offered to coordinate it.”

Bruce Goldfarb, a spokesman for Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said the office “is committed to transparency and will cooperate with any inquiry.”

The state is expected to begin working immediately to identify qualified independent experts who can serve on a work group to review cases under Fowler’s tenure, said Michael Ricci, a Hogan spokesman.

“We welcome an independent review of reports on deaths in custody issued during David Fowler’s tenure, and agree it is appropriate for the Office of the Attorney General to coordinate the work group,” Ricci said. “The governor has designated his Chief Legal Counsel to serve as a liaison for this effort.”

A person familiar with Fowler and his work, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of professional retribution, said Maryland had rigorous systems of oversight and quality assurance under Fowler’s watch. There were at least seven doctors working in each autopsy room in addition to regular reviewing conferences.

He also said the role of chief medical examiner in Maryland did not require Fowler to perform autopsies himself. As part of his leadership role, however, Fowler was tasked with reviewing every homicide, child and undetermined death. The person said Fowler was particularly inclined to trust the work of his physicians.

Fowler is also facing scrutiny in a Maryland case that a lawsuit filing referred to as “chillingly similar” to Floyd’s death.

Family of Maryland teen who died in encounter with police sues in federal court

In 2018, a 19-year-old college student named Anton Black died after interacting with a Greensboro officer responding to a call of a possible kidnapping on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

“Anton Black died because police employed excessive force, laying him out prone on his stomach, lying on top of him for approximately six minutes and approximately five minutes after he was handcuffed, and folding his legs toward the sky in a manner that further compromised his ability to breathe,” asserts a lawsuit the Black family has filed against several public officials in the case including Fowler.

A report signed by Fowler and an assistant medical examiner ruled Black’s death as accidental, saying that it was “likely that the stress of his struggle” with police contributed to his death, as did bipolar disorder and underlying heart issues.

The ruling said “no evidence was found that restraint by law enforcement directly caused or significantly caused or significantly contributed” to Black’s death.

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office is representing Fowler and moved to dismiss the case.

Coombs said in a statement that Frosh has taken steps “to wall off those in our office who are representing the [Office of the Chief Medical Examiner] and its current and former employees, including Dr. Fowler, from those who might be involved in any review of OCME reports.”

Kenneth W. Ravenell, Black’s attorney in the lawsuit, welcomed an investigation of Fowler and the state medical examiner’s office during his tenure. Ravenell said too often the focus of police-custody deaths is just on law enforcement and not on the role of medical examiners.

Fowler also led the office when Freddie Gray died after suffering injuries in a van in Baltimore police custody in 2015 and Anthony Anderson died after he was tackled by a Baltimore police officer in 2012. Both of their deaths were classified as homicides.

Fowler is a member of the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Brian Peterson, chief medical examiner for Milwaukee County, said he and Fowler have been friends for years and served together on NAME committees. Peterson said he finds the investigation into Fowler’s time as chief medical examiner unnecessary and called Fowler an “excellent, experienced forensic pathologist.”

“We investigate ourselves,” he said. “These cases get discussed, picked apart, analyzed and debated extensively within the office every time.”

Mark Berman and Keith L. Alexander contributed to this report.