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State Looked For Official Cause Of Death On 10th Day Of Derek Chauvin's Murder Trial

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin finishes its second week, prosecutors addressed the official cause of death of George Floyd. Floyd is the man that Chauvin is accused of murdering last May. And today we heard from medical examiners who do autopsies. NPR's Martin Kaste is in Minneapolis watching this trial and joins us now.

Hey, Martin.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right, so the precise cause of George Floyd's death is obviously at the center of the murder charge. So I'm curious - how much did the medical examiners help clarify things?

KASTE: Well, clarity is what the prosecution was hoping for today. They have a bit of a problem because the language on George Floyd's death certificate is open to interpretation. The cause of death is the following - quote, "cardiopulmonary arrest, complicating law enforcement subdural restraint and neck compression. The certificate also gives contributing factors such as heart disease, fentanyl intoxication and recent meth use.

So today we heard from the man responsible for the words on the death certificate, Andrew Baker, the chief medical examiner for Hennepin County. And he talked about how contributing factors, such as Floyd's heart disease, combined with all that adrenaline that was rushing through Floyd's body.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW BAKER: It's going to ask your body for more oxygen so that you can get through that altercation. And in my opinion, the law enforcement subdural restraint and the neck compression was just more than Mr. Floyd could take, by virtue of those heart conditions.

CHANG: OK, so it sounds like he's saying police did cause Floyd's death but with the help of other medical factors?

KASTE: Yeah, so I think what's important to point out here is that the prosecutors did not put him on the stand first. Instead, they started the day with another forensic pathologist, Lindsey Thomas. She used to work in Hennepin County. And she said she agreed with the official cause of death, but she interpreted it this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY THOMAS: What it means to me is that the activities of the law enforcement officers resulted in Mr. Floyd's death and that, specifically, those activities were the subdural restraint and the neck compression.

CHANG: Wait. Why would they start with an outside forensic pathologists instead of the county's medical examiner, who actually did the autopsy?

KASTE: Well, I think they wanted the jury's first impression to be a more unambiguous statement that police killed Floyd. Thomas is semi-retired. Maybe she's a little freer with her opinions. We did see that at another point in the trial today, when the defense attorney Eric Nelson was challenging this idea that the position Floyd was in, face-down in the street, is inherently dangerous. He cited a study from Canada that looked at about 3,000 cases of people being arrested in that position. Here; take a listen to when he challenged her about that study and her reaction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIC NELSON: And in those 3,000 or so interactions, there were no deaths that occurred.

THOMAS: Isn't that amazing, when you consider that virtually every forensic pathologist in the United States has probably had an officer-involved death like this. How did they - it utterly baffles me, which is why I kept saying Canada.

KASTE: Now, at this point, the defense attorney actually interrupts her. Thomas sort of shot a guilty look at the judge from the side of her eye there 'cause she'd violated court decorum. But later in her testimony, she had a chance to explain that she reacted that way because that study was so contrary to the experience of American pathologists, and she wondered what was so peculiar about Canada.

CHANG: All right, so what is next in this trial, Martin?

KASTE: Well, now the jury gets the weekend off. We're still waiting to see which witnesses the defense is going to call. The assumption here is that they're going to keep focusing on George Floyd's heart condition, his drug use and any other factors that might give this jury reasonable doubts about Derek Chauvin's culpability in his death.

CHANG: That is NPR's Martin Kaste.

Thank you, Martin.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.