That assessment also struck many Americans who watched the trial as a convoluted distraction from the plain truth visible in the video — that Floyd’s breathing was obstructed, and his life extinguished, by the lethal weight of Mr. Chauvin’s knee pressed on his neck for more than nine minutes.
As it turns out, it was not only jurors and viewers who rejected Dr. Fowler’s findings. So did hundreds of doctors nationwide, who last week signed a letter by former D.C. medical examiner Roger Mitchell calling for a review of Dr. Fowler’s tenure at the Maryland medical examiner’s office, which he led for 17 years, until 2019. Specifically, the letter urged an assessment of that office’s findings in cases involving deaths in police custody during that time.
Soon after receiving the letter, which also raised ethical and professional questions about Dr. Fowler’s testimony, senior Maryland officials said they would undertake the recommended review. That’s a warranted step.
The review should focus particularly on what was the not-uncommon practice of the Maryland medical examiner’s office to classify deaths in police custody as accidental or of “undetermined” cause. The concern, Dr. Mitchell suggested, is that those “inappropriate” conclusions may have been reached when homicide would have been the correct finding.
A possible case in point: In the last full year of Dr. Fowler’s tenure as Maryland’s medical examiner, his office found that the 2018 death of a 19-year-old, unarmed African American man, Anton Black, during a run-in with police, was accidental, concluding that the cause of death was not homicide but “sudden cardiac death” exacerbated by underlying heart issues, bipolar disorder and the “stress of his struggle” with three White police officers and a White civilian. A review of police body-camera footage of that incident is unnervingly reminiscent of Floyd’s death — officers in the Eastern Shore town of Greensboro flattened Black on the ground for six minutes, handcuffed and face down.
The medical examiner’s findings in that case, which dismissed the idea that Black’s restraint by police contributed significantly to his death, were a key factor in the decision by state prosecutors not to seek an indictment.
There should be no rush to judgment in assessing Dr. Fowler’s past. Professional judgments in medicine, as in other professions, can vary. Dr. Fowler was generally well respected during his time in Maryland. Among the prominent cases he oversaw was the determination that the death of Freddie Gray, in 2015, was a homicide caused by the injuries he had suffered in the back of a Baltimore police van, and by the officers’ failure to help or seek medical attention for him.
Nonetheless, Dr. Fowler’s testimony in Mr. Chauvin’s trial raises legitimate and disturbing questions. As Floyd’s case makes abundantly clear, no effort should be spared in scrutinizing deaths in police custody, and the initial findings rendered by officials.