The Maryland’s Attorney General’s Office said Friday it believes there should be a review of “in custody” death reports produced by the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner during the tenure of Dr. David Fowler, nine days after Fowler testified that an ex-Minneapolis police officer was not responsible for the death of George Floyd in police custody.
The announcement came less than 24 hours after the attorney general’s office received a letter from the former medical examiner of Washington, D.C., Roger A. Mitchell, signed by 431 doctors from around the country, saying Fowler’s testimony and conclusions were so far outside the bounds of accepted forensic practice that all his previous work could come into question.
“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. This stated opinion raises significant concerns for his previous practice and management,” the letter said.
Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office said Friday afternoon that it agreed for the need to review Fowler’s work, and said it had been in contact with Gov. Larry Hogan’s staff.
“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,” Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for Frosh, said in an statement to The Baltimore Sun. “We are already in conversations with the Governor’s Office about the need for such a review, and have offered to coordinate it.”
Fowler testified that Floyd died of a sudden heart rhythm problem due to his heart disease while being restrained by police, contradicting several experts who said Floyd died due to a lack of oxygen. Former officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter for kneeling on Floyd’s neck.
Reached by phone Friday afternoon, Fowler said he was not aware of any such consideration of a review. But he defended his office’s work, noting that he was not solely responsible for autopsy conclusions.
“There’s a large team of forensic pathologists, with layers of supervision, and those medical examiners always did tremendous work,” Fowler said.
“People need to do what they need to do,” he said of a potential review.
Bruce Goldfarb, a spokesman for the chief medical examiner’s office, said the agency is “committed to transparency and will cooperate fully with an inquiry.”
Coombs said the review of death determinations will not involve any state officials or staff connected to a lawsuit filed by the family of Anton Black, a 19-year-old who died in police custody in the the Eastern Shore town of Greensboro.
Black’s 2018 death was captured on video, with Greensboro police holding the unarmed teenager down for more than six minutes. Fowler ruled that Black died because of a sudden cardiac event while struggling with police, and not because they pinned him in a prone position.
Testifying in the Floyd case, Fowler said that police, who held Floyd down in a prone position for more than nine minutes, did not cause Floyd’s death. His testimony was rebutted by a string of prosecution medical experts.
Fowler declined to discuss his testimony in the Chauvin trial.
The attorney general’s office is defending the state in the lawsuit brought by Black’s family against Fowler, the state and others. They have asked for the Black case to be thrown out.
“We have taken steps to wall off those in our office who are representing the [Office of the Chief Medical Examiner] and its current and former employees, including Dr. Fowler, from those who might be involved in any review of [the examiner’s] reports,” Coombs wrote.”
Due to pending litigation, the office declined to comment on whether Fowler’s testimony in Chauvin’s murder trial influenced its decision to conduct a review.
The office will review all cases from 2003-2020, which falls under Fowler’s tenure. He retired in 2019 after 17 years as chief medical examiner to go into private consulting practice. He was considered one of the foremost medical examiners in the country and served on national boards.
Included in that time period is the death of Tyrone West, who died after struggling with Baltimore Police following a traffic stop in 2013. Witnesses and the officers themselves said there was a violent struggle between the officers and West, but the state medical examiner’s office ruled that he died from natural causes exacerbated by the struggle and the summer heat. That ruling played a significant factor in the officers being cleared by the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office.
West’s sister Tawanda Jones has been fighting to get her brother’s case re-opened for eight years. She said word of the review was “the best news I’ve gotten all day.”
“That is what my family has been asking for literally since my brother was murdered, when they first lied and played games,” Jones said Friday.
Frosh’s office made the decision to review Fowler’s work at the end of a week that saw Black’s family and attorneys call out Frosh for what they said was hypocrisy. Frosh sent out tweets praising the jury’s verdict in the Floyd case, never mentioning that Fowler, Maryland’s longtime chief medical examiner, served as a primary witness for Chauvin’s defense.
The letter from Mitchell and the hundreds of doctors was highly critical of Fowler’s testimony, particularly Fowler’s claim that Floyd may have suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning, even though no tests for that were conducted.
“We believe the unsubstantiated opinion that carbon monoxide exposure may have contributed to the death of George Floyd is far outside that standard and is grounds for an immediate investigation into the practices of the physician as well as the practice of the Maryland State Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) while under his leadership,” the letter said.
The letter draws specific attention to Fowler’s use of the “undetermined” cause of death conclusion. Fowler had come under scrutiny more than a decade ago due to the medical examiner’s office finding the cause of death “undetermined” in hundreds of cases, mostly drug-related, each year.
Fowler said in 2008 that the standard was “intellectually honest” because he could not determine with reasonable certainty how the person really died. The standard was unique to Maryland — only Rhode Island and Massachusetts used the same standard at the time — and predated his 1993 arrival in the office.
One of Fowler’s office’s best known rulings came in the death of Freddie Gray, who they determined died from injuries suffered in the back of a police van. The autopsy concluded that officers’ failure to take care of him and seek medical attention made his death a homicide, and prompted State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby to swiftly file charges against six officers.
All were either acquitted or had their charges dropped.
Kenneth Ravenell, the attorney for Black’s family, on Friday praised news of the review.
“We welcome the governor and the attorney general’s office to get involved in seeking justice for Anton Black and his family,” Ravenell said in a statement. “If the governor and the AG are serious about pursuing justice for Anton, they will adopt all of the suggestions in the physician’s letter.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.