Dr. David Fowler gained national attention — most of it unfavorable— when he testified as a defense expert in Derek Chauvin’s trial. Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes, preventing an adequate supply of oxygen from reaching his heart. Prosecution experts testified that Chauvin’s actions caused Floyd’s heart to fail.
Fowler offered an alternative explanation. He suggested that it was impossible to pinpoint a cause of death, but attributed the death to a variety of circumstances, including preexisting heart disease, Floyd’s ingestion of fentanyl and methamphetamine, and carbon monoxide poisoning from vehicle exhaust.
The jury rejected Fowler’s explanation when it found that Chauvin caused Floyd’s death. But Fowler has frequently rendered expert opinions that favor police officers when a suspect dies in their custody. Whether Fowler based his opinions on medical facts or a pro-police bias is now under investigation.
Lawsuit Against Fowler
Fowler was recently sued by the family of Anton Black, a young man who died under circumstances described as “chillingly similar” to Floyd’s death. During a police encounter, officers in a Maryland town took Black to the ground and pressed against his neck.
An autopsy concluded that “the stress of his struggle” with police contributed to Black’s death, along with bipolar disorder and underlying heart issues, but found no evidence “that restraint by law enforcement directly caused or significantly caused or significantly contributed” to the death. Fowler gave final approval to the conclusion that the death was accidental.
The lawsuit accuses Fowler “of obstructing the officer-involved death investigation by delaying the release of an autopsy for months, being improperly influenced by police and clearing the path for police to ‘develop a narrative that absolved the involved officers of their wrongdoing’.” The autopsy was released to Black’s family only after Maryland’s governor intervened.
Now Fowler is facing an investigation in Maryland, where he was the state’s chief medical examiner from 2002 to 2019. The investigation was announced by the Maryland attorney general and the governor’s office. It will ask independent experts to probe all investigations of deaths in police custody that were overseen by Fowler.
The investigation followed a letter signed by 432 doctors around the country who accused Fowler of advancing an expert opinion for Chauvin that was “outside the standard practice and conventions for investigating and certification of in-custody deaths.” The letter states that professional disagreement with Fowler’s opinion in Chauvin’s case was not a matter of opinion but a question of ethics.
Fowler argues that his opinion in the Chauvin trial was “formulated after the collaboration of thirteen other highly experienced colleagues in multiple disciplines” and that his evaluation “set an ethical standard for the work needed in sensitive litigation.” Other experts disagree with Fowler’s claim of professionalism.
Families Complain About Fowler’s Conclusions
Fowler’s pattern of exonerating the police when deaths occur in police custody is not limited to his opinions concerning the deaths of Anton Black and George Floyd. The families of Karreem Ali and Tyrone West have spent years asking authorities to review Fowler’s conclusions.
Witnesses saw West die after police officers beat him and attacked him with pepper spray. Fowler decided that West, age 44, died of a heart condition that was exacerbated by the summer heat and the stress of his police encounter. The city of Baltimore settled the family’s wrongful death claim for $1 million, a settlement that suggests the city’s lack of confidence in Fowler’s opinion.
Ali died after the police shocked him with a Taser 16 times. Fowler attributed the death to “schizophrenia induced agitated delirium,” a condition that, in the view of most medical authorities, doesn’t exist. Montgomery County paid $450,000 to settle a wrongful death suit brought by Ali’s family.
A website that supports medical examiner and death investigation reform has compiled resources that address the lack of accountability for medical professionals who offer cause-of-death opinions in court. The website contends that 66% of deaths in police custody during 2015 were misclassified by medical examiners and coroners. Most pathologists report that they have felt pressure to change their findings in death investigations.
The county coroner system is particularly problematic. The website reports that 43% of forensic pathologists have had a cause of death changed by a coroner who prepared a death certificate. Many county coroners have no medical training at all.
Proposed reforms include:
- Assuring that medical examiner offices are independent of law enforcement offices. When medical examiners see themselves as working to help the police, they may feel a need to justify the actions of officers who cause deaths.
- Implementing systems that allow medical examiners to report attempts to pressure them to exonerate police or to influence death investigations. The system should include protection against retaliation for making a report.
- Eliminating elected county coroners who have no medical training yet pronounce a cause of death.
- Requiring all autopsy reports to be prepared by certified pathologists.
When pathologists testify as expert witnesses, accountability needs to come from licensing bodies. Experts may legitimately disagree with other. It isn’t unethical to express an honest opinion that others do not share. It is unethical to slant an opinion in favor of the party who is paying the expert to testify.
The review of Fowler’s work by independent experts is a belated attempt to bring accountability to expert opinions that are far outside the mainstream. Ideally, every suspicious death in police custody should be subjected to independent review when a medical examiner exonerates the police.