An independent autopsy conducted by a famed pathologist at the request of George Floyd’s family has found that “George Floyd’s death was due to asphyxia from sustained forceful pressure” by Minneapolis police officers, according to a news conference and release by the Floyd family attorneys.
“The knee to the neck and the knees to his back both contributed to him not being able to get breath,” said Floyd family attorney Ben Crump in the news conference. “And what those officers did, that we see on the video, is the cause of his death, not some underlying, unknown health condition. George Floyd was a healthy young man. We see in the video he was walking, breathing; he was alive. His cause of death medically was mechanical asphyxiation. The legal determination is homicide. That is it in a nutshell. The officers killed him based on a knee to his neck for almost nine minutes and two knees to his back compressing his lungs. The ambulance was his hearse.”
However, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner says differently.
In a late evening press release on June 1, issued after Crump’s news conference, the office stated that Floyd’s cause of death was “Cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression. Manner of death: Homicide. How injury occurred: Decedent experienced a cardiopulmonary arrest while being restrained by law enforcement officer(s).” They listed ther significant conditions as “Arteriosclerotic and hypertensive heart disease; fentanyl intoxication; recent methamphetamine use.”
They added, “Manner of death classification is a statutory function of the medical examiner, as part of death certification for purposes of vital statistics and public health. Manner of death is not a legal determination of culpability or intent, and should not be used to usurp the judicial process. Such decisions are outside the scope of the Medical Examiner’s role or authority. Under Minnesota state law, the Medical Examiner is a neutral and independent office and is separate and distinct from any prosecutorial authority or law enforcement agency.” What that means is that, when a homicide is declared by a medical examiner, it does not necessarily mean that it is a criminal homicide, because that’s a determination made by prosecutors (they have charged one officer with third-degree murder in this case).
The ME released the autopsy report for Floyd on June 3. It indicated he was an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19. “The decedent was known to be positive for 2019-nCoV RNA on 4/3/2020,” the report says. “Since PCR positivity for 2019-nCoV RNA can persist for weeks after the onset and resolution of clinical disease, the autopsy result most likely reflects asymptomatic but persistent PCR positivity from previous infection.” You can read the full autopsy report here.
None of that was known at the time of the family’s press conference.
Despite murder and manslaughter charges being filed against Officer Derek Chauvin, the official cause of death had not yet been released by the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office at that time. They said before that they were awaiting laboratory results. The criminal complaint describes preliminary findings but said the full report was not yet completed. The complaint filed by the Hennepin County Attorney, Mike Freeman, said the Medical Examiner’s office found “no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation.” Furthermore, it refers to Floyd having “potential” intoxicants in his system as a contributor to his death.
The family pathologists’ findings, based on comments at the Crump news conference by the pathologists, were made based on the totality of circumstance, including the video, abrasions to Floyd’s face, and lack of an underlying condition that could have caused his death, the pathologists indicated. Toxicology reports are pending, and the Floyd family pathologists did not have access to all specimens in custody of the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office. In the press conference, Baden, who kept his remarks brief, said that the “compressive pressure of the neck and back are not seen at autopsy because the pressure has been released… it can only be seen, serious compressive pressure on the neck and back, can only be seen while the pressure is being applied or when, as in this instance, it is captured on video.”
Floyd’s family is now calling for the arrest and charging of all officers who were at the scene. Crump said the family wants first-degree murder charges for Chauvin and the other officers to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. He said that Floyd was “begging to be treated like one of God’s children…Black lives matter, and George Floyd’s life mattered.” Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, but the other three officers at the scene have not been charged, although they were fired.
“World renowned medical examiner Dr. Michael Baden and Dr. Allecia Wilson found the manner of Mr. Floyd’s death was homicide caused by asphyxia due to neck and back compression that led to a lack of blood flow to the brain,” says a press release from Crump.
“Sustained pressure on the right side of Mr. Floyd’s carotid artery impeded blood flow to the brain, and weight on his back impeded his ability to breathe. The independent examiners found that weight on the back, handcuffs and positioning were contributory factors because they impaired the ability of Mr. Floyd’s diaphragm to function. From all the evidence, the doctors said it now appears Mr. Floyd died at the scene.”
In a virtual press conference held over Zoom, and attended by Heavy, Crump encouraged people to look at the “knees to the back,” not just the “knee to the neck. They are both significant.” Crump called the officers’ actions a “blue shield.”
“It was homicidal,” Baden repeated at the press conference.
“What we found is consistent with what people saw. There is no other health issue that could cause or contribute to the death,” Dr. Baden said in a press release. “Police have this false impression that if you can talk, you can breathe. That’s not true.” He repeated in the news conference that Floyd didn’t have an underlying medical condition that contributed to his death, saying he was in “good health.”
Floyd’s last minutes were documented in a very disturbing viral video that shows now-fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee to Floyd’s neck. Police use-of-force experts have decried the restraint technique used by the officer, especially keeping Floyd in a prone position, even as bystanders shouted that Floyd was in peril.
Floyd’s family, through an attorney, then announced they were hiring famed pathologist Baden to conduct an independent autopsy. Baden has conducted high-profile autopsies for families before; most recently, he examined the body of Jeffrey Epstein, saying he found indications of homicide, not suicide. Read more about Baden’s career here. Baden was the chief medical examiner for the City of New York from 1978 to 1979. Baden was chairman of the House Select Committee on Assassinations’ Forensic Pathology Panel that looked into the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1970s. He runs a private forensic pathology consulting practice, testified at the murder trials for OJ Simpson and Phil Spector, and performed autopsies on Michael Brown (the man shot by Ferguson, Missouri, police) and NFL player Aaron Hernandez.
“We are not surprised yet we are tragically disappointed in the preliminary autopsy findings released today by the medical examiner. We hope that this does not reflect efforts to create a false narrative for the reason George Floyd died,” said civil rights attorney Crump. “Attempts to avoid the hard truth will not stand, and on behalf of the family, we are fiercely committed to bringing the truth to light.”
Before the June 1 development, the latest release by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office had come on May 28. It states:
The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office is actively investigating the death of George Floyd and awaiting final results from laboratory studies to provide the most medically accurate cause of death determination possible. The Medical Examiner recognizes the public expectation for timely, accurate, and transparent information release, within the confines of Minnesota law. However, the autopsy alone cannot answer all questions germane to the cause and manner of death, and must be interpreted in the context of the pertinent investigative information and informed by the results of laboratory studies. Under Minnesota state law, the Medical Examiner is a neutral and independent office and is separate and distinct from any prosecutorial authority or law enforcement.
An earlier release by the medical examiner on May 26 stated, “The cause and manner of death is currently pending further testing and investigation by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the FBI.”
Here’s what you need to know:
Baden Referred to the ‘Compressive Pressure of the Neck & Back’ When Discussing His Findings
A reporter asked whether the cause of death determination was made by the video or other forensic evidence.
Wilson said that the findings were based “on the circumstances surrounding the death, which does include the video but also additional findings determined at our autopsy. Physical evidence supports that there was pressure applied to his neck.” She also said they examined “other organs available to us.” She wasn’t specific about those additional findings, but Baden then provided more details.
“We take everything we have in consideration,” said Baden. “In this instance, the video tells you what the scene is. Those multiple videos show pressure that can cause death and his calling out like Eric Garner including calling out for his mother who had been dead for three years. None of this caused the release of the pressure, and that is very disturbing.”
He added: “There were rough abrasions around the left eye and left cheek, and a little bit on the nose and mouth, that are due, as we can see in the video, to his left side of his face being rubbed against the pavement while the left knee of the officer is squeezing down on the left side of the neck…the neck is a small area with many vital organs, arteries, veins, nerves, and the windpipe, all of which are compressed with the knee activity. The abrasions.. would also indicate that a component of the interference of breathing was also some pressures that were placed on the nose and mouth. These are also very painful kinds of scrapes. Also severe scrape marks on the back of his left shoulder that was part of the activity that was causing him to rub against the officer’s knee as well as the face being on the ground.”
Asked whether Floyd had heart disease, Wilson said that, in the specimens they examined, they didn’t find significant disease of the heart, but she said that other specimens were retained by authorities and weren’t available.
Baden said, “I wish I had the same coronary arteries that Mr. Floyd had that we saw at the autopsy.”
Wilson said that they had not had a chance to review the actual preliminary report of the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, although it was summarized in the criminal complaint against Chauvin. “We do disagree,” said Wilson, of the Floyd family team and Hennepin County ME. “There is evidence in this case of traumatic or mechanical asphyxia.”
“For George Floyd, the ambulance was his hearse. Beyond question, he would be alive today if not for the pressure applied to his neck by fired officer Derek Chauvin and the strain on his body from two additional officers kneeling on him,” said Crump in the news conference. “George was living, breathing, talking until we see these officers restrain him while he’s facedown in handcuffs with Officer Chauvin having his knee lodged into his neck for more than 8 minutes.. and the other officers having both of his knees lodged into his back.” He called the violence in the streets unacceptable.
Baden said that he is pro police in some respects but that some “rotten apples” occur, especially in restraint cases.
Added Baden: “In this instance, we can see, after a little less than four minutes, that Mr. Floyd is motionless, lifeless, and when the EMS arrived and put him on the stretcher without any CPR at that time, during the ambulance trip, he did not respond to CPR and did not respond to cardiac shock.”
He added: “The cause of death in my opinion is asphyxia due to compression of the neck, which as Mr. Crump indicated can interfere with blood flow and oxygen going to the brain and compression of the back which interferes with breathing.” He said some police are under the false impression that if you can talk you can breathe, urging them to take it seriously when a person says “I can’t breathe.”
“Toxicology and further investigation are necessary for a final report. Evidence is consistent with mechanical asphyxiation as the cause of death and homicide as the manner of death,” Wilson, Director of autopsy and forensic sciences at the University of Michigan, said in the news conference.
However, Baden said, as to pending toxicology reports, “Whether he has drugs or alcohol in his body for example, is not a cause of death. It would be a circumstance.”
The Criminal Complaint Says That Chauvin Kept His Knee on Floyd’s Neck for 8 Minutes and 46 Seconds
The complaint says Floyd’s autopsy revealed “no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation. Mr. Floyd had underlying health conditions including coronary artery disease and hypertensive heart disease. The combined effects of Mr. Floyd being restrained by the police, his underlying health conditions and any potential intoxicants in his system likely contributed to his death.”
Chauvin “had his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in total. Two minutes and 53 seconds of this was after Mr. Floyd was non-responsive. Police are trained that this type of restraint with a prone position is inherently dangerous,” the complaint says. It also says that Chauvin disregarded another officer, Thomas Lane, who asked, “should we roll him on his side?” Chauvin allegedly responded, “No, staying put where we got him,” the complaint says.
The complaint also states that the Hennepin County Medical Examiner “conducted Mr. Floyd’s autopsy on May 26, 2020. The full report of the ME is pending.” The above findings were characterized as the ME’s “preliminary findings.”
Heavy reached out previously to a law professor who is a national expert on police use-of-force cases. Seth Stoughton is an associate professor at the University of South Carolina school of law, a former Florida police officer and co-author of a book called Evaluating Police Uses of Force. He studies policing and how it is regulated.
Stoughton said, speaking before the Baden findings, there are a “couple of issues in the complaint” filed by the Hennepin County Attorney which will make the Chauvin prosecution complex:
First, and most obviously, is the ambiguity in the cause of death. For any homicide charge, the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant caused the victim’s death; that is, that the victim would not have died at that point but for the defendant’s actions. That’s easiest when the defendant’s actions were the only thing that caused the victim’s death, but it is enough if the defendant just contributed to the victim’s death. The defense will seek to raise a reasonable doubt about the cause of death, probably by arguing that Mr. Floyd would have died anyway even if the officers had done everything correctly. Second, the complaint has to allege and the prosecution has to prove the other elements of the offense. Under Minnesota law, third degree murder applies when the defendant ‘without intent to effect the death of any person, causes the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life.’ The prosecution has to establish that 1) what Derek Chauvin was doing was eminently dangerous to others, and 2) that he evinced a depraved mind and disregard for human life. I didn’t see much of anything in the complaint on those points, and you can bet that the defense will argue that 1) what the officers were doing wasn’t ’eminently dangerous’ and, 2) even if it was, Derek Chauvin was doing what he thought was right.
What is traumatic asphyxiation? According to the journal article Traumatic asphyxia due to blunt chest trauma: a case report and literature review:
Asphyxia is defined as any condition that leads to tissue oxygen deprivation. Traumatic asphyxia is a type of mechanical asphyxia, where respiration is prevented by external pressure on the body, at the same time inhibiting respiratory movements and compromising venous return from the head. Conditions like compression of the chest and/or abdomen under a heavy weight and wedging of the body within a narrow space or large crowds have been reported. A Valsalva maneuver is necessary before thoracic compression for development of the syndrome. Usual autopsy findings include intense purple facial congestion and swelling with hemorrhagic petechiae of the face, the neck and upper chest, craniocervical cyanosis and subconjunctival hemorrhage.
You can read the full complaint here. This is the citizen video showing officers restraining Floyd. Be forewarned that it’s very disturbing.
Attorney Crump wrote that the legal team representing the family of Floyd had issued this statement related to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s preliminary autopsy findings:
These preliminary findings state that, although Officer Chauvin drove his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck for more than 8 minutes, the cause of death was not asphyxiation, but rather appeared to be the ‘combined effects of Mr. Floyd’s being restrained by police, underlying health conditions, and any potential intoxicants in his system.’
“What we know is clear: George Floyd was alive before his encounter with police, and he was dead after that encounter. We believe there is clear proximity between the excessive use of force and his death,” said Antonio Romanucci, Founding Partner of Romanucci & Blandin, LLC and co-counsel in the case.
The statement continued:
The Floyd family’s legal team will hire Dr. Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist with expertise in high profile cases, and Dr. Allecia Wilson to determine the precise cause of death. That independent autopsy will be conducted in the Minneapolis area in the next several days. Findings of that report will be made public. Because the findings of the Hennepin County Medical examiner’s preliminary report do not address in detail the effect of the purposeful use of force on Mr. Floyd’s neck and the extend of Mr. Floyd’s suffering at the hands of the police, the family has chosen to engage an independent medical examiner to conduct their own autopsy.
The dangers of prone restraint have been known to law enforcement for years.
As far back as 1995, the National Law Enforcement Technology Center noted in a paper, “A person lying on his stomach has trouble breathing when pressure is applied to his back. The remedy seems relatively simple: get the pressure off his back.” Known factors increasing risk of positional asphyxia include obesity, drugs or alcohol, an enlarged heart, and a violent struggle.
“Studies have suggested that restraining a person in a face-down position is likely to cause greater restriction of breathing than restraining a person face-up,” Police Magazine reported. “Multiple cases of death by positional asphyxia have been associated with the hog tied or prone restraint position.”
The criminal complaint says that a person called 911 on May 25, 2020, and reported that a man “bought merchandise from Cup Foods…with a counterfeit $20 bill.”
Officers Thomas Lane and J.A. Kueng arrived at 8:08 p.m. They learned from store personnel that the man “who passed the counterfeit $20 was parked in a car around the corner from the store on 38th Street.”
The officers’ body-worn cameras show that the officers approached the car, with Lake on the driver’s side and Kueng on the passenger side. Three people were in the car. George Floyd was in the driver’s scene and an adult male and female were also in the vehicle, the complaint says.
The complaint further alleges that as Lane began speaking with Floyd, “he pulled his gun out and pointed it at Mr. Floyd’s open window and directed Mr. Floyd to show his hands.” Floyd put his hands on the steering wheel, so Lane put his gun back in its holster. (The bodycam videos have not yet been released publicly.)
When Kueng was speaking with the front seat passenger, Lane ordered Floyd out of the car, put his hands on Floyd and pulled him out of the car, handcuffing him. “Mr. Floyd actively resisted being handcuffed,” the complaint alleges.
Once handcuffed, Floyd “became compliant” and walked with Lane to the sidewalk, sitting on the ground at Lane’s direction. There was a conversation for under two minutes. Lang asked Floyd for his name and identification and whether he was on anything and explained he was arrested Floyd for passing counterfeit currency, the complaint stated.
Kueng and Lane stood Floyd up and attempted to walk him to their squad car at 8:14 p.m. Floyd “stiffened up, fell to the ground, and told the officers he was claustrophobic.”
That’s when Chauvin and Officer Tou Thao arrived in a separate squad car.
“The officers made several attempts to get Mr. Floyd in the backseat of squad 320 from the driver’s side. Mr. Floyd did not voluntarily get in the car and struggled with the officers by intentionally falling down, saying he was not going in the car, and refusing to stand still,” the complaint alleges. “Mr. Floyd is over six feet tall and weighs more than 200 pounds.”
While standing outside the car, Floyd began “saying and repeatedly that he could not breathe.” Chauvin went to the passenger side and “tried to get Mr. Floyd into the car from that side and Lane and Kueng assisted,” according to the complaint.
Chauvin “pulled Mr. Floyd out of the passenger side of the squad car at 8:19:38 p.m. and Mr. Floyd went to the ground face down and still handcuffed,” said the complaint.
It alleged that Kueng held Floyd’s back and Lane held his legs. Chauvin placed his left knee in the area of Floyd’s head and neck. Floyd said, “I can’t breathe” multiple times and repeatedly said, “Mama.”
“The defendant and the other two officers stayed in their positions,” according to the complaint.
The officers said, “You are talking fine,” to Floyd. Lane asked, “should we roll him on his side?” Chauvin allegedly responded, “No, staying put where we got him.”
Lane said, “I am worried about excited delirium or whatever.” Chauvin said, “That’s why we have him on his stomach,” according to the complaint, which added that “none of the three officers moved from their positions.”
The bodycam video shows that Floyd continued to move and breathe but stopped moving at 8:24:24 p.m.
At 8:25:31 p.m., the video appears to show Floyd ceasing to breathe or speak. Lane said, “I want to roll him on his side.” Kueng checked Floyd’s right wrist for a pulse and said, “I couldn’t find one.” None of the officers moved from their positions.
At 8:27:24 p.m., Chauvin removed his knee from Floyd’s neck. An ambulance arrived and Floyd was placed on a gurney. Floyd was pronounced dead at Hennepin County Medical Center.
Heavy previously reached out to Tom Kelly, the lawyer for Chauvin, and his office said Kelly is not commenting right now on the case and that reporters should direct their questions to the Minneapolis Police Department. Lt. Bob Kroll of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis told CBS Minneapolis: “Now is not the time rush to judgment and immediately condemn our officers. An in-depth investigation is underway. Our officers are fully cooperating. We must review all video. We must wait for the medical examiner’s report.”
READ NEXT: Officer Derek Chauvin: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know