State vs. Chauvin: Testimony continues on Friday

WDIO/KSTP
Updated: April 09, 2021 04:41 PM
Created: April 09, 2021 10:28 AM

Dr. Andrew Baker was the Hennepin County Medical Examiner at the time of Floyd's death. | WDIO/Court TV pool Dr. Andrew Baker was the Hennepin County Medical Examiner at the time of Floyd's death. | WDIO/Court TV pool

On Friday, testimony continues in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. On Thursday, experts analyzed George Floyd's breathing in the case, coming to a conclusion a lack of oxygen, not drugs, caused his death.

Three experts took the stand, Dr. Martin Tobin volunteered his time as a witness. He is a lung and critical care doctor. Dr. Daniel Isenschmid, a forensic toxicologist, tested a blood sample from Floyd at the request of the Hennepin County Medical Examiner. He said meth and fentanyl were found in Floyd's system but the meth level was similar to a single-prescribed dose. The final medical expert, Dr. William Smock, an emergency medical doctor took the stand. He was the state's first paid witness.

RELATED STORY: State vs. Chauvin: Testimony continued on Thursday

"Mr. Floyd died from positional asphyxia which is a fancy way of saying he died because he had no oxygen left in his body," Smock said.

Here is the court proceedings for Friday, April 9:

Dr. Lindsey Thomas is called to the stand by state prosecutor Jerry Blackwell to begin Friday's session. Dr. Thomas is a forensic pathologist. Thomas noted she conducts "medical legal death investigations" and is also trained to certify the cause and manner of death. 

"I think a lot of people assume it's all about the autopsy ... and that's really just a tiny part of the death investigation," Thomas said. 

She further explained they look at medical, social and family history, events around the time of death, physical exam, toxicology, and other factors. 

"When I'm talking about terminal events, I'm talking about what happened in the period of time around their deaths ... for example, he was out shoveling snow, he came in, clutched his chest, and fell over," she stated.

She said she previously worked at the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Officer as an assistant medical examiner. She also was the chief of the Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner's Office for 13 years. She also was "involved in an autopsy protocol that was ultimately published by the United Nations that's still in use."

Forensic pathologist, Dr. Lindsey Thomas during testimony in the trial of Derek Chauvin. | WDIO/Court TV Forensic pathologist, Dr. Lindsey Thomas during testimony in the trial of Derek Chauvin. | WDIO/Court TV

Dr. Thomas noted in court she is not being paid for her appearance on the stand. She confirmed that the state reached out to her. 

"I knew this was going to be important ... I felt like I had something to offer and I wanted to do what I could to help explain what I think happened."

She said Dr. Baker, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner at the time of Floyd's death, did his fellowship at Hennepin County when she was on staff. They later worked together and she considers him a friend. Thomas said she has not spoken about the case with him. 

"Well the use of videos is unique. In this case, certainly as medical examiners. We use videos, but there's never been a case that I've been involved with that had videos over such a long timeframe, and from so many different perspectives," she said. 

The state shows the court and Dr. Thomas a copy of George Floyd's death certificate. She agrees with Baker's assessment of the cause of death. Baker stated it was caused by asphyxia or low oxygen. 

"This is a death where both the heart and lungs stopped working. And the point is that it's due to law enforcement subdual restraint and compression," Thomas said. 

She reiterates that the cause of death was determined by the officers' actions. 

Thomas also said the autopsy report is great "for ruling things out." 

Thomas says from all the videos she felt comfortable ruling the following out: not a sudden death caused by a cardiac arrhythmia which she says would be quick; and not a fentanyl overdose who "peacefully stops breathing."  

"There's a movement that I believe is what's called an anoxic brain reaction ... looks like kind of a twitch. It's something that the body does when the brain no longer has enough oxygen," Thomas explained. 

Blackwell asks if this is something that a person does consciously and voluntarily. Thomas replies, "Oh no, no. It's something that your body just does. When your brain doesn't have enough oxygen."  Dr. Thomas adds that the contributing conditions on the report can also be used "to list disease processes or drugs that are present at the time of death, butt... that we don't believe directly contributed to the cause of death."

Thomas ruled out drug overdose as a cause of death regarding Floyd. The opinion is based on her review of video, records and her experience/knowledge.  

She said there is no autopsy test for low oxygen. She used the examples of hanging or "manual strangulation" that have physical signs of low oxygen, but those are different mechanisms. 

"Sometimes in cases ... we see specific findings related to the cause," Thomas said.

The court is showing autopsy photos to the jury, defense, Thomas and Judge Peter Cahill. The photos are not being shown to the public. 

"This is a photograph of Mr. Floyd's face, and it shows some facial injuries," Thomas said, looking at one of the photos presented to her. 

Judge Cahill has issued a 20-minute break. They will reconvene around 11:05 a.m.

Nelson objected to the introduction of an exhibit that explains how medical examiners determine the manner of death. He believed "it would confuse the jury between the medical definition in the legal definition."

Cahill said he will allow it as a demonstrative exhibit, meaning it will only be shown in court and won't go back with jurors to make their decision. 

After a short break, the state continues, asking Dr. Thomas about how heart attack, drug overdoses would be categorized as. They go over an exhibit that is only being shown in court for demonstrative purposes. It is a guide for manner of death classification from the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Since the cause of death was ruled a homicide, Thomas believes that alone rules out any possibility of the death being caused by an accidental drug overdose.

Eric Nelson, with the defense starts cross-examination of this witness. Nelson asks Dr. Thomas to explain what the terms of the word complicating means in the terms for a forensic pathologist. He asks whether the term could be interpreted differently by medical experts.  Thomas replies "yes."  Nelson asks about the condition of George Floyd's heart. Dr. Thomas says "it's a slight enlarged heart." She says by some categories, "that heart would not be considered enlarged" because of different standards.

Nelson asked about the direction of those abrasions seen on Floyd and how they could have been caused. 

"Not all of those abrasions necessarily occurred while Mr. Floyd was in the prone position, right," Nelson asked Thomas. She answered it was "hard to answer."

After Nelson finished his questioning, Blackwell took over to redirect. He asked Thomas if she remembers the hypotheticals Nelson asked.

"Aren't those questions, a lot like asking: this is Lincoln, if we take John Wilkes Booth out of this..."

Nelson objected and Cahill sustained.

The court broke for lunche and will return at 1:30.

The court has reconvened. Dr. Andrew Baker has been called to the witness stand. He was the Hennepin County Medical Examiner at the time of Floyd's death.

Baker explained the process of conducting an autopsy, which includes taking photographs, x-rays, examination, cleansing and then conducting an internal exam. 

"In a case like Mr. Floyd's, there are some additional steps we would take that wouldn't occur in most autopsies," he said. He also stated it included looking for bruising under the skin where handcuffs were. 

He stated he was made aware of a viral video on Facebook of the incident, but said he chose to "intentionally not" seek out the video before he completed his autopsy. 

More photos of the autopsy conducted were distributed to people in court, but the public will not see these photos, due to graphic content. 

Baker explained how he dissects and examines a heart and what he looks for in terms of previous injuries and heart diseases. 

"Mr. Floyd had no visible or microscopic previous damage to his heart muscle," he noted. It has been persuaded by the defense that Floyd may have had such damage from prior heart issues and his drug history.


"If a person dies very, very quickly from a coronary artery event, we can only infer what happened ... we wouldn't expect the heart muscle to look abnormal," Baker added. 

Regarding Floyd's brain, Baker said he did not note any injury "in the sense of it being deprived of blood or oxygen."

Dr. Baker explains another photo of Floyd showing an abrasion on his left shoulder. He confirms that it is consistent with Floyd laying prone on the asphalt. He also pointed to a kind of patterned bruise, saying it almost looks like a "tram track." Dr. Baker says thos parallel marks are pretty typical for what handcuff marks look like when seen at an autopsy.

Baker explained how he dissects and examines a heart and what he looks for in terms of previous injuries and heart diseases. 

"Mr. Floyd had no visible or microscopic previous damage to his heart muscle," he noted. It has been persuaded by the defense that Floyd may have had such damage from prior heart issues and his drug history.

"If a person dies very, very quickly from a coronary artery event, we can only infer what happened ... we wouldn't expect the heart muscle to look abnormal," Baker added. 

Regarding Floyd's brain, Baker said he did not note any injury "in the sense of it being deprived of blood or oxygen."

Baker said he has worked with NMS Labs in the past 13 to 14 months. Two expert witnesses — Dr. Dan Isenschmid and Susan Neith — work for NMS Labs and have already testified in this trial. 

When asked if Baker found anything resembling "either a pill or pill fragments" in the report, Baker said he did not. 

"In Mr. Floyd's specific case, the fact that he had been coded positive seven or eight weeks before he passed away could not factor into my cause of death determination because I didn't see any signs of COVID at his autopsy," Baker said in court. 

Baker noted that they discovered a tumor inside Floyd but the doctor stated he did not feel it had anything to do with Floyd's death. 

"In my opinion, the law enforcement dual restraint and the neck compression was just more than Mr. Floyd could take by virtue of those heart conditions," Baker said.

After a short afternoon recess, the court has reconvened. The defense will now cross-examine Dr. Baker. 

Nelson asked Baker to define "complicating."

"It means that an intervention occurred and there was an outcome that was untoward on the heels of that intervention. So for example, somebody goes into the hospital for hip surgery and they develop a blood clot in their leg," he responded. 

Baker agrees with Nelson that Floyd's history of hypertension, heart disease and the drugs in his system played a role in his death. 

Dr. Baker says he did watch the video later in the day after performing the autopsy but before releasing the body, "So had I seen something on the video that triggered yet another thought in my mind, I still had the chance to act on it."

"There are many ways that a lack of oxygen to the heart could cause death. One could be a sudden dysrhythmia, where the person's heart goes from a normal beat to a non-perfusing beat, and the person would literally just collapse right in front of you," Baker said.

Nelson asks if Dr. Baker looked at the brain for signs of lack of oxygen. Baker replies, "We do but to be fair that brain, the person has to survive the anoxic brain injury for a considerable period of time before we can see anything in most of the cases... we're not going to see any acute changes in the brain."

Nelson says, in the course of your many conversations with prosecutors and law enforcement officers... after watching the video, you've made some statements about where you thought Mr. Chauvin's knee was placed. Did yu feel that Mr. Chauvin's knee was compressing his neck?  Baker replied, "yes."

Nelson asked Baker about the statement the Hennepin County Attorney's Office put in the complaint. He said that he found no anatomical evidence of asphyxia. 

"In terms of the placement of Mr. Chauvin's knee, would that anatomically cut off Mr. Floyd's airway?" Nelson asked. 

"In my opinion, it would not," Baker answered. The court takes a 15-minute break. At 3:50, Judge Peter Cahill called a recess for the remainder of the day. Court will reconvene at 9:30 a.m. Monday. 

Related Stories

Credits

WDIO/KSTP

Copyright 2021 WDIO-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

Trial for former officer charged in Daunte Wright's death tentatively set for Dec. 6

Portion of Airport Road closed for a utility project

LSC hosts virtual commencement ceremony

Which major retailers have removed mask requirements?

City installing snow emergency route signs

Walz, legislative leaders reach $52 billion budget deal