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Forensic Expert For Chauvin's Defense Said Heart Disease, Drugs Killed George Floyd

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Minneapolis today, jurors in the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin heard from a key witness for the defense - a forensic pathologist who offered an alternative explanation for George Floyd's death. NPR's Adrian Florido is in Minneapolis covering this trial and joins us now.

Hi, Adrian.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So who was this witness? And what did he say exactly?

FLORIDO: Well, his name is David Fowler. He is the former chief medical examiner for the state of Maryland. And, you know, the prosecution has spent days and several expert witnesses presenting technical and medical evidence to show that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by pressing his knee into his neck and asphyxiating him. But today, this defense witness said no.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID FOWLER: So in my opinion, Mr. Floyd had a sudden cardiac arrhythmia or cardiac arrhythmia due to his atherosclerotic and hypertensive heart disease - or you can write that down multiple different ways - during his restraint and subdual by the police or restraint by the police.

CHANG: Wait. What does that mean exactly?

FLORIDO: Well, it means, in his opinion, that George Floyd had a heart attack, that his heart stopped because of preexisting heart disease and that this all happened while he was being arrested. He said that contributing factors were Floyd's abnormally large heart, which was found in an autopsy, buildup in his coronary arteries, the fentanyl and methamphetamine that were found in Floyd's system and something new that we actually hadn't really heard the defense allude to before today, which is he said Floyd could have been poisoned by carbon monoxide because he was breathing in exhaust from the police car next to which he was being arrested.

CHANG: What do you think Fowler's testimony signaled about the defense's strategy going forward?

FLORIDO: Well, the defense spent all morning with Fowler, not turning him over for the cross-examination until after lunch. He spent more time on the stand than any witness during this three-week trial. It speaks to how critical it is for the defense to raise doubts about the prosecution's argument that Chauvin suffocated George Floyd. And unlike the prosecution, which has to prove its case, the defense only has to raise doubts in the minds of jurors. So listen to this exchange in which the defense attorney, Eric Nelson, tried to do that by asking Fowler about the absence of any injuries on George Floyd's neck.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC NELSON: And so in your opinion, the absence of such injury - how does that speak to the cause of death?

FOWLER: It speaks to the amount of force that was applied to Mr. Floyd was less than enough to bruise him.

FLORIDO: The implication was that if it wasn't enough force to bruise him, it wasn't enough to kill him.

CHANG: Well, how did the prosecution handle this witness on cross-examination?

FLORIDO: So prosecutor Jerry Blackwell came out swinging and, I think it's fair to say, started dismantling Fowler's testimony point by point. Within the first couple of minutes, he got Fowler to admit he had not factored in the weight of Derek Chauvin's equipment when calculating how much pressure came onto Floyd's neck. On the suggestion of carbon monoxide poisoning, he got Fowler to admit he didn't even know if the police car was turned on. And on the claim that a heart arrhythmia killed Floyd, listen to this exchange.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERRY BLACKWELL: If a person dies as a result of low oxygen, that person's also going to die, ultimately, of a fatal arrhythmia, right?

FOWLER: Correct. Every one of us in this room will have a fatal arrhythmia at some point.

BLACKWELL: Right, because that's kind of how you go.

FOWLER: Yes.

FLORIDO: This kind of questioning went on and on on most of the points in Fowler's testimony. He's one of the most important and possibly last witnesses for the defense. The defense is expected to close its case possibly as soon as tomorrow.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR's Adrian Florido in Minneapolis.

Thank you, Adrian.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.