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Maryland in-custody deaths to be reviewed after former medical examiner testified in Chauvin trial

Dr. David Fowler said in court that he would have classified the manner of Floyd's death as "undetermined."
Image: Families pay their respects at George Floyd Square
George Floyd Square in Minneapolis on April 2, 2021.Octavio Jones / Reuters

An independent review will be conducted of in-custody death determinations in Maryland during the tenure of Dr. David Fowler, the retired chief medical examiner who testified in the Derek Chauvin trial, state officials said Friday.

Fowler was called by the defense for the former Minneapolis police officer as an expert and testified that he would have classified George Floyd's death as "undetermined" rather than homicide. He also said that Floyd died of a sudden heart rhythm disturbance as a result of heart disease and also raised the possibility of carbon monoxide from vehicle exhaust.

That prompted a letter to Maryland's attorney general, signed by hundreds of doctors, calling for an independent review of people who died while in police custody during the 17 years Fowler was the state's chief medical examiner.

"The cause of death opinion, particularly the portion that suggested open-air carbon monoxide exposure as contributory, was baseless, revealed obvious bias, and raised malpractice concerns," read the letter published by The Baltimore Sun, which first reported the review.

The doctors also took issue with the "undetermined" classification, saying it falls outside standard practices and conventions regarding in-custody deaths.

On Friday, representatives for Attorney General Brian Frosh and Gov. Larry Hogan confirmed to NBC News that they agreed to a review.

"We welcome an independent review of reports on deaths in custody issued during David Fowler’s tenure, and agree it is appropriate for the Office of the Attorney General to coordinate the workgroup," Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said in a statement.

Chauvin was found guilty on Tuesday of murder and manslaughter in Floyd's death last year after kneeling on his neck for around nine minutes.

The letter to the Maryland attorney general and others came from former Washington, D.C., chief medical examiner Roger A. Mitchell and was signed by over 400 doctors, according to The Sun.

Fowler, who was Maryland's chief medical examiner from 2002 until his retirement in 2019, told The Sun on Friday that he was not solely responsible for all conclusions.

“There’s a large team of forensic pathologists, with layers of supervision, and those medical examiners always did tremendous work,” Fowler said. Of a possible review, he told the paper: "People need to do what they need to do."

Raquel Coombs, communications director for the Maryland attorney general's office, said it had taken steps to wall off those involved in representing the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and its current or former employees, including Fowler, in lawsuits from any possible review.

The attorney general's office also represents state agencies and employees in lawsuits.

Fowler is among several people being sued in federal court by the family of Anton Black, a 19-year-old Black man who died in police custody in September 2018 in Maryland after three officers and a bystander held him down in the prone position for about six minutes. No one was charged.

The lawsuit accuses two police officers of using excessive force and Fowler of "improperly concealing police wrongdoing," for ruling the death "accidental."