After George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020, Maryland's former Chief Medical Examiner Dr. David Fowler was called as a defense witness for Chauvin's 2021 trial. Fowler testified that Floyd's death should be classified as "undetermined" and not a homicide, citing factors including heart disease, drug use and carbon monoxide exposure. Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter for kneeling on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes. Fowler's testimony prompted concern among hundreds of his peers, who suggested he might be motivated by racial or pro-law enforcement bias. Maryland officials launched a review last year of similar "in-custody" death reports that were performed during Fowler's tenure at the helm of the state medical examiner's officer. An independent audit team is recommending that the state reinvestigate 100 of 1,300 cases in which people died in police custody. The cases share key similarities, including the absence of an "obvious medical cause of death," and they each involved physical restraint. "We embarked on this process with the goal of overseeing a professional and independent audit that adheres to the highest standards of impartiality and integrity," said Attorney General Brian Frosh, NPR reports.
The new audit will be led by an independent group of experts in forensic pathology. They will reopen and comb through records to decide whether they agree with the original medical examiner's conclusions on the cause and manner of death. The new panel will explore the role of physical restraint in each death and whether the person would have lived if restraint was not used. It will also recommend the need for changes in training, policy or procedure regarding the application of physical restraint that might reduce the risk of death in such cases. Fowler has defended his record and said he did not work alone when preparing autopsy conclusions. The audit findings could also involve the death of other men in police custody, including the 2018 death of Anton Black. Video footage shows the 19-year-old was chased by a white civilian and three white police officers, who had fired a taser at the teen and pinned him face down on the ground for six minutes until he stopped breathing. Fowler ruled that Black's death was an accident caused by a cardiac issue while struggling with police and his bipolar disorder. No officers were charged. Black's family filed a federal lawsuit in 2020 against the officers, Fowler, the towns where the officers served and the two police chiefs involved in the case, claiming the medical examiner tried to cover up his death in his autopsy report.