Baltimore, MD – Maryland officials have launched an investigation into former Maryland Chief Medical Examiner Dr. David Fowler’s findings on all in-custody deaths during his 17-year tenure after he testified in the defense of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.
Fowler testified that he would have classified George Floyd’s death as “undetermined” rather than as a homicide during the final days of Chauvin’s murder trial in Minneapolis, The Washington Post reported.
The former chief medical examiner said Floyd’s primary cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia due to underlying heart conditions while he was restrained by police.
Fowler also testified that Floyd’s drug use and exposure to carbon monoxide fumes from the police car he was held under had contributed to his death, The Washington Post reported.
Floyd had 11 ng/mL of fentanyl in his system when he died, several times more than what is normally considered a lethal dose. He also had 19 ng/mL of methamphetamine in his system, along with other drugs.
Chauvin was convicted on all counts on April 20 and sent to prison to await sentencing.
As soon as the trial was over, former DC Chief Medical Examiner Roger Mitchell sent a letter to the Maryland attorney general calling for state and federal investigations into Fowler’s medical license, The Washington Post reported.
Mitchell also asked the state to review all of the findings of the Maryland medical examiner’s office while Fowler was at the helm.
The former DC medical examiner told NPR that 458 physicians had signed on to his letter.
The letter openly criticized Fowler’s testimony about what killed Floyd and especially criticized his suggestion that carbon monoxide was a contributing factor as “baseless, revealed obvious bias, and raised malpractice concerns.”
The signatories of the letter said Fowler’s determination in the Floyd case raised questions about every ruling on a death in custody while he was in charge of the office, NPR reported.
“Our disagreement with Dr. Fowler is not a matter of opinion,” the letter read. “Our disagreement with Dr. Fowler is a matter of ethics.”
Mitchell told NPR that his call for a review was “about the citizens of Maryland. This is about the individuals in this country that die while in custody while in contact with the criminal justice system.”
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office said it had already been in discussions about launching a review before Mitchell’s letter and had reached out to Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s office for guidance, The Washington Post reported.
“We agree that it is appropriate for independent experts to review reports issued by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner regarding deaths in custody,” Frosh spokeswoman Rachel Coombs said in a statement. “We are already in conversations with the Governor’s Office about the need for such a review, and have offered to coordinate it.”
Michael Ricci, spokesman for the governor, said the state was working to identify independent, qualified experts to be members of a work group that will review cases from Fowler’s tenure, The Washington Post reported.
“We welcome an independent review of reports on deaths in custody issued during David Fowler’s tenure, and agree it is appropriate for the Office of the Attorney General to coordinate the work group,” Ricci said. “The governor has designated his Chief Legal Counsel to serve as a liaison for this effort.”
The Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s (OCME) spokesman, Bruce Goldfarb, said the office “is committed to transparency and will cooperate with any inquiry,” The Washington Post reported.
A source told The Washington Post said Maryland had “rigorous systems of oversight and quality assurance under Fowler’s watch.”
The source said there at least seven other doctors working in each autopsy room and regular reviewing conferences were held.
He also said the chief medical examiner in Maryland wasn’t required to perform autopsies himself, but was tasked with reviewing homicide, child death, and undetermined death, The Washington Post reported.
The source said Fowler usually trusted the determinations of the physicians under him.
Fowler has also been in the hot seat recently in Maryland over a case that had some similarities to Floyd, The Washington Post reported.
The Maryland Attorney General’s Office is investigating the 2018 death of 19-year-old Anton Black in the custody of the Greensboro police on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
“Anton Black died because police employed excessive force, laying him out prone on his stomach, lying on top of him for approximately six minutes and approximately five minutes after he was handcuffed, and folding his legs toward the sky in a manner that further compromised his ability to breathe,” according to a lawsuit filed by Black’s family.
The lawsuit alleged that Fowler and a number of other officials “covered up and obscured police responsibility for Anton Black’s death,” NPR reported.
Frosh’s office filed a motion to dismiss the case in early April.
Coombs said that the attorney general had taken steps to separate staff who were representing Fowler from staff who were investigating the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), NPR reported.
“The Office of the Attorney General is also charged with representing state agencies and employees who are sued for actions taken within the scope of their employment,” she wrote. “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 American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland (ACLU) has accused the OCME of having “complicit in creating false narratives about what kills Black people in police encounters.”
But under Fowler, numerous deaths in custody were ruled homicides, including some high profile cases like Freddie Gray and Anthony Anderson, NPR reported.
Fowler defended his tenure as the medical examiner and his testimony at the Chauvin trial in a statement released Friday, The Washington Post reported.
“I stand behind the outstanding work that all of our dedicated staff at the Maryland State Medical Examiner’s Office performed during my tenure as the Chief ME,” he said.
Fowler further explained that his opinion at Chauvin’s trial “was formulated after the collaboration of thirteen other highly experienced colleagues in multiple disciplines,” The Washington Post reported.
He said “our evaluation set an ethical standard for the work needed in sensitive litigation.”