Dr. Andrew Baker, key witness, stands by homicide determination in Chauvin trial

By: - April 10, 2021 1:22 pm

Dr. Andrew Baker, Hennepin County chief medical examiner, testified Friday in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin. Courtesy of the Minnesota Reformer.

Hennepin County’s chief medical examiner told the jury he stood by his initial conclusion that George Floyd died when his heart and lungs stopped after Derek Chauvin and other Minneapolis police officers subdued and restrained him, compressing his neck.

Dr. Andrew Baker, chief medical examiner since 2004, is a key witness in the murder and manslaughter trial because the defense is arguing that Floyd died from health problems and drugs, not Chauvin’s use of force.

Baker told investigators Floyd had 11 nanograms of fentanyl per milliliter in his bloodstream and, “If he were found dead at home alone and no other apparent causes, this could be acceptable to call an OD. Deaths have been certified with levels of three (nanograms).”

Baker testified Friday that he’s seen overdoses with lower and higher levels of fentanyl than that, because it varies depending on a person’s drug history and tolerance.

Nelson asked Baker if he recalled telling the county attorney Floyd had a fatal level of fentanyl. Baker said he recalled saying “in other circumstances it would be a fatal level.”

“I don’t recall specifically what I told the county attorney but it almost certainly went something like this: Had Mr. Floyd been home alone in his locked residence with no evidence of trauma and the only autopsy finding was that fentanyl level, then yes, I would certify his death as due to fentanyl toxicity.”

While Floyd had severe heart disease, an enlarged heart and fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system, Baker listed those as “other significant conditions,” saying it was the officers’ restraint of Floyd on the street that caused his death. He said Floyd’s heart disease and drug use were contributing causes, but not direct causes.

“In my opinion the law enforcement subdual restraint and neck compression was just more than Mr. Floyd could take by virtue of those heart conditions,” Baker said Friday afternoon in much-anticipated testimony. “Mr. Floyd’s use of fentanyl did not cause the subdual or neck restraint; his heart disease did not cause the subdual or the neck restraint.”

Baker said he didn’t watch the viral video of Floyd’s death before doing the autopsy the following day because he didn’t want it to bias his autopsy.

In his cross-examination, Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, focused on Floyd’s myriad health problems, drug use and the lack of bruising found on Floyd’s neck or back. During the autopsy, Baker saw no visible damage to Floyd’s heart or brain, but did find narrowing of arteries and said Floyd had heart disease and an enlarged heart. Still, he testified, “to the best of my knowledge he was generally healthy on May 25 before the events of that evening.”

“Methamphetamine is not good if you have bad coronary arteries,” he said.

Baker didn’t see any injury to Floyd’s brain, even though it was deprived of oxygen. Baker did not list asphyxia (lack of oxygen) as a cause, as other medical experts have testified was a cause of Floyd’s death.

Baker said lack of visible injury to Floyd’s brain was not unusual, however.

The prosecutor, Jerry Blackwell, asked Baker his opinion on the cause of death, taking everything into consideration.

“My opinion remains unchanged,” he said. “It’s what I put on the death certificate last June: It’s cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual restraint and neck compression. That was my top line then, it would stay my top line now. … I would still classify it as a homicide today.”

He noted, however, “Homicide in my world is a medical term; it’s not a legal term.”

Former Hennepin coroner says cops killed Floyd

The former assistant Hennepin County medical examiner said George Floyd would not have died on May 25 if not for what Chauvin did to him.

Dr. Lindsey Thomas, a forensic pathologist and former Hennepin County medical examiner who helped train Baker and considers him a friend, ruled out the defense’s explanation of Floyd’s death, that he died of a drug overdose. Floyd had a very low level of meth in his bloodstream, and didn’t display the signs of a fentanyl overdose, Thomas said.

Thomas testified that she agreed with what Baker determined was the cause of Floyd’s death — cardiac arrest as police subdued and restrained him.

The mechanism of death was asphyxia, or low oxygen.

She said Baker’s autopsy report didn’t say the mechanism of death, so she gathered information from the videos to come to her conclusion it was asphyxia. The autopsy ruled out a heart attack, she said.

“This was not a sudden death,” Thomas said.

She said if Floyd had died from a cardiac arrhythmia, he would’ve basically dropped dead. And if he died from a fentanyl overdose, he would have become sleepy and calmly, peacefully stopped breathing.

Thomas also said she could see the point in videos where Floyd was not getting enough oxygen, but the police restraint continued — even after an officer could find no pulse.

“At that point, his heart has also stopped,” she testified.

She also said he suffered an anoxic seizure, evidenced by muscles twitching.

What the prosecution and defense are zeroing in on as the prosecution wraps up its case is the “contribution conditions” Baker listed on the death certificate: fentanyl intoxication, recent methamphetamine use and arteriosclerosis.

Thomas said such diseases and drugs present at death are data listed for the state to collect, but that doesn’t mean they directly contributed to the cause of death.

The trial resumes Monday with another medical expert. The defense is expected to begin making its case sometime next week.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter is a reporter for the Minnesota Reformer, an affiliate of the nonprofit States Newsroom network. Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.