Officials in Maryland said Friday they will open an investigation into the tenure of the state’s former chief medical examiner after he provided what many say was highly controversial testimony on behalf of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty last week on three counts in the death of George Floyd 11 months ago.
Specifically, state officials will look at all deaths that occurred in police custody when Dr. David Fowler was serving as Maryland’s lead forensics examiner, the Maryland attorney general and governor’s offices announced.
Fowler, who was chief medical examiner from 2002 to 2019 and is now serving as a consultant, testified that Floyd’s primary cause of death was a sudden heart rhythm disturbance while he was being restrained by Chauvin’s knee to his neck and upper back areas because of underlying heart disease. Floyd was pinned to the pavement by Chauvin for nearly nine minutes; defense medical experts testified that he died from asphyxiation caused by Chauvin’s actions.
Fowler also testified that the fentanyl and methamphetamine in Floyd’s system, as well as a possible elevated carbon monoxide level from nearby vehicular exhaust, likely contributed to his death.
The former chief forensic pathologist also classified Floyd’s death as “undetermined,” a finding that differed from the Hennepin County, Minn., medical examiner’s office, which ruled it a homicide.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, and GOP Gov. Larry Hogan announced the investigation on Friday less than 24 hours after Frosh’s office received a letter from Roger Mitchell, the former chief medical examiner for Washington, D.C., that was signed by 431 doctors from around the country.
The letter stated that Fowler’s medical conclusions regarding Floyd’s death were so outrageous and out of bounds regarding accepted forensic practices that his previous work should be examined.
“Dr. Fowler’s stated opinion that George Floyd’s death during active police restraint should be certified with an ‘undetermined’ manner is outside the standard practice and conventions for investigating and certification of in-custody deaths,” the letter stated. “This stated opinion raises significant concerns for his previous practice and management.”
The letter also calls for investigations both at the state and federal levels regarding Fowler’s medical license and asks officials to look into the function of the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner during Fowler’s 17 years as its top medical examiner, Fox News reported.
A spokeswoman for Frosh said his office had actually engaged in discussions for weeks regarding whether to launch an investigation into police in-custody death reports that occurred on Fowler’s watch and that the AG’s office had been in contact with Hogan’s office to see how best to proceed, according to the Washington Post.
“We agree that it is appropriate for independent experts to review reports issued by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) regarding deaths in custody,” spokeswoman Raquel Coombs said in a statement. “We are already in conversations with the Governor’s Office about the need for such a review, and have offered to coordinate it.”
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Hogan, Michael Ricci, said the governor is on board with an independent analysis of reports on in-custody deaths that were issued when Fowler was in charge of the medical examiner’s office, saying he agrees “it is appropriate for the Office of the Attorney General to coordinate the work group.”
Ricci noted further the Maryland governor “has designated his chief legal counsel to serve as a liaison for this effort.”
In comments to The Baltimore Sun, Fowler said he wasn’t aware of any state probe of his tenure while also defending his work as chief medical examiner, adding that he alone was not responsible for autopsy findings.
“There’s a large team of forensic pathologists, with layers of supervision, and those medical examiners always did tremendous work,” Fowler said Friday, while declining to comment on his Chauvin testimony.
One incident that is likely to receive renewed attention stems from a deadly interaction in 2018 between Greensboro police and 19-year-old Anton Black, who died in custody.
Video from the incident showed Greensboro police holding Black, who was not armed, down for more than six minutes.
Fowler’s examination concluded that Black died due to a sudden cardiac event while he was struggling with officers, not because they pinned him down in a position similar to that of Floyd.
The Black family sued, and the Maryland attorney general’s office is currently defending Fowler’s conclusions.
In addition, investigators will likely look at a 2013 case in which suspect Tyrone West died following a struggle with police in Baltimore after a traffic stop.