Independent pathologists to review 100 in-custody deaths investigated during tenure of former Maryland chief medical examiner

Published on: October 19, 2022 2:38 PM EDT|Updated on: October 20, 2022 9:10 AM EDT

In this image from video, Dr. David Fowler, a retired forensic pathologist and former chief medical examiner for the state of Maryland testifies as Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill presides, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in the trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. Chauvin is charged in the May 25, 2020 death of George Floyd.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said on Wednesday that an independent group of forensic pathologists will review the autopsies of about 100 people who died while in the custody of law enforcement that physicians performed during the tenure of the state’s former chief medical examiner.

Dr. David Fowler testified in 2021 in Hennepin County District Court as an expert witness for former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, who murdered George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, on May 25, 2020.

Fowler concluded that Floyd’s cause of death was heart problems and stated that fentanyl and methamphetamine, and possibly car exhaust, were contributing factors. He said he would have classified the manner of death as undetermined instead of homicide.

More than 400 medical experts signed an open letter alleging that Fowler deviated from standard medical practice in the case and called for an investigation into determinations that his office made in cases in which people died in custody. “Our disagreement with Dr. Fowler is not a matter of opinion,” the letter read. “Our disagreement with Dr. Fowler is a matter of ethics.”

The Maryland Office of the Attorney General later appointed a team to come up with a plan for how to conduct an audit.

The team looked at information from more than 1,300 cases and determined that independent experts in forensic pathology should focus on about 100 in which people died during or shortly after law enforcement restrained them. The group recommended that auditors conduct their review in two phases.

“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,” Frosh said in a statement.

Frosh commended the team for recommending a “thorough and thoughtful audit process that will provide a professional and impartial review.”

In a statement, Sonia Kumar, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, said, “For decades, family members of those killed by police have said that the medical examiner’s reports are wrong. This preliminary audit report is a vindication of exactly what they said.”

Kumar said it does not “pass the smell test” for investigators to claim that people died because of car exhaust, hot temperatures or bipolar disorder right after the police restrained them.

“The government must tell the truth about what caused death in these cases, and it must do so based on evidence,” Kumar said. “If we don’t tell the truth about what caused the deaths, we can’t learn how to prevent them.”

Chauvin was found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 22 1/2 years in prison. He later pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota to violations of civil rights.

Fowler could not immediately be reached for comment. He served as the chief medical examiner from 2002-2019.

This story has been updated to correct the number of years of Chauvin's prison sentence.