Maryland’s former chief medical examiner, whose office concluded that police did not cause the controversial death of unarmed Black teenager Anton Black in 2018, has been listed as a witness for the former Minnesota officer accused of murdering George Floyd.
Dr. David Fowler, a state medical examiner for 17 years before stepping down in 2019, is the first expert witness submitted by lawyers for Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd. Floyd died after Chauvin pinned his knee to Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes while making an arrest last year.
Chauvin’s defense attorneys have argued that Floyd died not because Chauvin and other officers suffocated him by their actions, but because he used drugs and had preexisting conditions that caused his heart to fail.
They brought on Fowler to bolster that contention, although he may not take the stand. On his LinkedIn page Fowler said he “works as a private independent consultant in Forensic Pathology (who) provides expert opinion services in the causation of death by natural and non-natural processes.”
Fowler played a key role in the investigation into Black’s death on the Eastern Shore, a case similar to Floyd’s.
Black, 19, died at the hands of police officers in Caroline County’s Greensboro. The altercation was captured on video by a bystander, as was Floyd’s interaction with Minneapolis police.
Black was experiencing a mental health crisis on Sept. 15, 2018, when officer Thomas Webster was dispatched to the scene. Webster, who has a history of being accused of excessive force and violence against Black residents, received help from other officers, according to records of the case and a federal lawsuit filed by Black’s family in December.
Three officers were on top of Black’s body for nearly six minutes while police said they were trying to arrest the teen, records show. As in the Floyd case, officers continued pressing down on him for many minutes after he was handcuffed, records show.
“Even after [Black] was handcuffed, the officers ignored the danger they were causing and kept [Black] in a prone restraint for approximately six minutes as he struggled to breathe, lost consciousness and suffered cardiac arrest,” the family’s lawsuit alleges.
But the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office, then headed by Fowler, ruled the death “an accident” and said there were no signs police did anything wrong.
“It is likely that the stress of his struggle contributed to his death,” the state autopsy concluded. “However, no evidence was found that restraint by law enforcement directly caused or significantly contributed to the decedent’s death; in particular, no evidence was found that restraint led to the decedent being asphyxiated.”
A toxicology report found no evidence of drugs in his system.
Fowler has testified as a consultant and expert witness around the country since he retired in 2019, according to his LinkedIn page.
Fowler did not respond to a request for comment.
But in his work as Maryland’s chief medical examiner, he also issued some very high-profile opinions that reached conclusions against law enforcement officers. His most notable case involved the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore teen who died in police custody in 2015.
Fowler’s officer found that Gray suffered a single “high-energy injury” to his neck and spine — most likely caused when the police van in which he was riding suddenly decelerated, according to a copy of the autopsy report obtained by The Baltimore Sun.
The state medical examiner’s office concluded that Gray’s death could not be ruled an accident, and was instead a homicide, because officers failed to follow safety procedures “through acts of omission.”
One day later, armed with that conclusion, The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office brought charges against six police officers in connection to the treatment of Gray, although they ultimately were acquitted.
In its December lawsuit, Black’s family accused Fowler of being part of an attempt by police to cover up their actions. The lawsuit alleged that the officers immediately began fabricating a story, saying that the police made false claims that “[Black] was high on marijuana laced with another drug and exhibiting ‘superhuman’ strength.”
The lawsuit alleged Fowler’s autopsy findings “covered up and obscured police responsibility for Anton Black’s death, by falsely attributing the cause of death to a heart condition, bipolar disorder and/or other natural causes, thereby ‘blaming the victim’ for his own death.”
Additionally, Fowler did not rely on evidence, such as the body camera footage that showed Black’s “prolonged restraint by multiple officers” but instead relied on misleading police narratives and didn’t acknowledge that compression “of the upper body compromises a person’s ability to breathe,” the lawsuit alleged.
Black’s mother witnessed his death on the front porch of their home, the lawsuit said. After pressure from activists and Gov. Larry Hogan, it was not until late January 2019 that Greensboro police released video of the incident.