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David Fowler, the former Maryland chief medical examiner who testified as a defense witness in the trial of police officer Derek Chauvin, will have all of his prior cases reviewed after a letter signed by over 450 doctors disagreed with his testimony.
Fowler testified that Floyd died of a sudden cardiac event due to underlying heart conditions, drug use, and possibly inhaling carbon monoxide from nearby car exhaust. He claimed that Floyd’s cause of death should be labeled as undetermined.
Several other experts, including the Hennepin County, Minnesota, medical examiner, testified that Floyd’s cause of death was the result of Chauvin placing his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.
Dr. Roger Mitchell Jr., a former chief medical examiner for Washington, D.C., wrote an open letter calling for an investigation into Fowler’s career. “Dr. Fowler’s stated opinion that George Floyd’s death during active police restraint should be certified with an ‘undetermined’ manner is outside the standard practice and conventions for investigating and certification of in-custody deaths. This stated opinion raises significant concerns for his previous practice and management,” the letter stated.
According to the signatories, Fowler’s testimony was “baseless, revealed obvious bias, and raised malpractice concerns.” They added, “Our disagreement with Dr. Fowler is not a matter of opinion. Our disagreement with Dr. Fowler is a matter of ethics.”
Fowler, who served as a state medical examiner for 17 years, has also drawn criticism for his opinion in the cases of Anton Black and Tyrone West. In the case of Anton Black, Fowler ruled that he died as a result of cardiac arrest. Black’s family has filed a lawsuit against the state.
Fowler defended his official findings, saying, “There’s a large team of forensic pathologists, with layers of supervision, and those medical examiners always did tremendous work.”
Fowler did, however, find that the police were responsible for the death of Freddie Gray, a high-profile 2015 case that sparked riots in Baltimore. He ruled that Gray died as a result of a single “high-energy injury” to his neck likely caused by the sudden slowing of the police van he was riding in. Fowler’s office concluded Gray’s death was not an accident but a homicide because officers did not follow safety procedures.
Ironically, when Caesar Goodson Jr., one of the six police officers charged in Gray’s death, went on trial, Dr. Jonathan Arden, a former medical examiner from Washington D.C. who testified for the defense, refuted Dr. Fowler’s official finding, stating that he determined Gray’s death to be accidental. No one has ever called for a review of Arden’s career findings while a chief medical examiner.
While advocating for a complete review, the Baltimore Sun provided this important statement about Fowler and the American justice system:
It’s important to remember that Dr. Fowler has not been charged with any crime. By all previous accounts, he has been well regarded in his field. Nor is it even clear that his views were necessarily invalid. Our legal system assures that both sides of a case, whether the matter is criminal or civil, have the right to call experts of their choosing and then it’s up to a judge or jury to pass judgment on the competing views to determine where the truth rests. If an opinion is unpopular or goes against conventional wisdom or does not support the views of one or other political party it becomes all the more vital that it be protected.
Our justice system protects, first and foremost, the rights of the accused and the right to a fair trial. In that vein, it is important to ensure that witnesses are not swayed by monetary reward, threats, or personal bias. Even before Dr. Fowler’s testimony came under attack, another Chauvin defense witness saw his former home attacked, with blood splattered on the door and a severed pig’s head left behind.
It is also just as important to remember that Fowler was not on trial, Chauvin was. As a medical examiner for many years, there is no reason for the public to believe Fowler was intentionally dishonest or somehow corrupted. He delivered his opinion of the situation, as an expert witness is supposed to do. A jury deliberated and decided that they did not believe Fowler’s opinion to be the truth, and they found Chauvin guilty of murder.
The letter sent by “medical colleagues” raises serious concerns about witness interference or, worse, witness intimidation — share an unpopular or unconventional opinion in court and your entire life and life’s work could become subject to “review.” This will make it harder for defense attorneys to find experts willing to share their alternative opinions. It also sets a dangerous precedent: 450 people signed a letter calling for an investigation of someone’s entire career because they didn’t agree with a witness’s opinion and a state’s attorney general quickly ceded to their wishes. There is no evidence that Fowler gave fraudulent testimony. The only evidence we have would be to suggest he was incorrect or, at worst, incompetent.
In fact, any sign of potential issues with the legitimacy of the trial seems to be on the side of the prosecution as this was an extremely public trial with strong emotions felt by the public. One alternate juror even expressed her concern about that fact that jurors were nervous, even fearful, that finding Chauvin not guilty would lead to more riots and destruction.
Every defendant deserves a fair trial, and when there is doubt, a judge will generally err on the side of the defense. The accused has rights, and one of those rights is to mount a vigorous defense, using all the resources — including expert opinions — availed to them.
For other “experts” to weigh in and try to ruin Dr. Fowler’s reputation and career is a form of witness intimidation. Those experts who believe that their demand for a review is an appropriate course of action just because Dr. Fowler was on the wrong side of public sentiment might want to consider that one day they too might find themselves holding an unpopular opinion. And what then?
The American judicial system is the best in the world because it is designed to protect all those who partake in it — including the accused — and to ensure that the overwhelming power of the state is never misused. Those who would do their part to dismantle or weaken our judicial system for short-term political gain or to signal their own virtue may one day find themselves in a position where they need those protections — only to find that those protections no longer exist.