Former Md. medical examiner’s testimony for Chauvin defense leads to call for review of past cases

The attorney general of Maryland said his office is considering a review of cases done by and under the supervision of the former state chief medical examiner, who testified on behalf of the defense at the trial of Derek Chauvin.

Brian Frosh said his office has spoken with Gov. Larry Hogan’s office about conducting a review.

The effort comes after his office received an open letter sent by D.C.’s former chief medical examiner Roger Mitchell — and signed by over 400 physicians across the country — accusing David Fowler, who was Maryland’s chief medical examiner between 2002 and 2019, of “obvious bias” during his testimony.

“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.

The letter was addressed to political leadership — specifically Frosh, Maryland Secretary of Health Dennis Schrader, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky.

Mitchell’s letter argued that the testimony provided by Fowler called into question the practices of the office under his leadership.

But Fowler told WTOP: “I stand by all of the findings made by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the staff who work there.”

When asked to comment about Mitchell’s letter, he said he doesn’t want to do that now.

At the trial, Fowler argued that Chauvin was not responsible for the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police, when video evidence showed Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. Fowler also said carbon monoxide poisoning may have been a contributing factor in his death.

“The cause of death opinion, particularly the portion that suggested open-air carbon monoxide exposure as contributory, was baseless, revealed obvious bias, and raised malpractice concerns,” the letter reads.

“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 former Minneapolis police officer was convicted of murder and manslaughter for pinning Floyd to the pavement with his knee on Floyd’s neck.

The letter goes on to say that Maryland’s OCME may have used the classifications of “accident” or “undetermined” in order to avoid labeling the deaths of individuals in police custody as homicides.

A recent lawsuit accused Fowler of helping police officers avoid responsibility for the death of 19-year-old Anton Black, who is Black.

Black died after a physical confrontation with several police officers ended with him forced prone on the ground, while an officer laid on top of him for around six minutes. The incident was captured on video.

Fowler ruled that physical exertion from the struggle with police, an underlying heart condition — which was not previously diagnosed — and a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder led to Black’s death, not the officer laying on top of him while he was pinned down by several white officers, and a civilian, on the ground.

The lawsuit — brought by Black’s family and led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland — specifically accuses Fowler of delaying the release of the autopsy for several months, giving police time to establish a narrative that would absolve them of wrongdoing in Black’s death.

Last week, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, led by Frosh, filed a motion week to dismiss the lawsuit brought by Black’s family which claimed the medical examiner tried to cover up Black’s death in the autopsy report.

Frosh said his office agreed that an independent review of Maryland’s OCME cases involving in-custody deaths is warranted.

“We are already in conversations with the Governor’s Office about the need for such a review, and have offered to coordinate it,” Frosh’s office said in a statement.

However, the Attorney General’s office is responsible for representing state employees and agencies who are sued for actions taken within the scope of their employment. Frosh said the office has considered this, and believes it can keep the two separate.

“We have taken steps to wall off those in our office who are representing the OCME and its current and former employees, including Dr. Fowler, from those who might be involved in any review of OCME reports,” the office’s statement continues.

Mitchell said 448 physicians signed on in support of the open letter so far. He said the opinion Fowler offered was too far from what was probable, and could serve to confuse the criminal justice system.

“If he was willing to suggest that carbon monoxide played a part in George Floyd’s death and also suggesting the case was not a homicide — I thought it was important for the state of Maryland, as well as the federal government, to take a look at the practices of that office, on how they certify cause and manner of death for their deaths in custody,” Mitchell told WTOP.

WTOP’s Glynis Kazanjian and Mike Murillo contributed to this report.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Zeke Hartner

Zeke Hartner is a digital writer/editor who has been with WTOP since 2017. He is a graduate of North Carolina State University’s Political Science program and an avid news junkie.

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