Dr. David Fowler garnered national attention after his controversial testimony on behalf of killer cop Derek Chauvin. The former Maryland Chief Medical Examiner made headlines when he testified Floyd died in part due to exhaust from a tail pipe. The testimony raised questions about his competence and police bias, and lead nearly 400 medical pathologists to call for review of his rulings on ‘police-involved’ deaths during his tenure in Maryland.
This week, in response to a request from The Real News Network, the state of Maryland released a list of roughly 1,400 cases of in-custody deaths that occurred during Fowler’s tenure. The list has been turned over the the Maryland Attorney General’s office for review by a panel of experts.
Studio/Post-Production: Adam Coley
Update: Embedded below is the full list of cases of in-custody deaths that occurred during Dr. David Fowler’s tenure as Maryland Chief Medical Examiner. This spreadsheet was obtained by The Real News Network from the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office in response to an information request.
Taya Graham: Hello, my name is Taya Graham, and this is Stephen Janis, and we are your hosts of the Police Accountability Report. And we have a breaking news update. Now, you may have heard of Dr. Fowler just recently because he rose to national prominence during the George Floyd murder trial. When he testified on behalf of Derek Chauvin, what did he say that was so controversial? Well, he suggested that George Floyd’s death was due to underlying heart disease and car exhaust. Let’s take a moment to listen to him speak for himself.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Speaker: Would you agree that pressure on the soft side of the neck also narrows the size of the upper airway, the hypopharynx?
Dr. David Fowler: I have not seen any literature which indicates that that happens. That was one of the specific things I searched for. Because you’re correct, counselor, it was not something that was put into the report. Because it’s not something that I have ever heard of, and so I then went and looked for pressure on the neck causing restriction of the hypopharynx, and my literature search was not fruitful. What you’re referring to as a sudden death – And I may well have misinterpreted – I’m referring to as a sudden cardiac rest. There’s a difference between death and cardiac arrest. Cardiac arrest is not absolutely irreversible and not synonymous with a person always passing away.
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: So as you can see, Dr. Fowler’s testimony was highly controversial, and 431 doctors and pathologists from around the country wrote an open letter demanding that all of his determinations and all of his rulings be examined and be audited. And so we have gotten a hold of internal documents that will show the cases that will be reviewed. Stephen, tell them a little bit about what we found in these documents.
Stephen Janis: Well first of all, this is the first time that we’ve seen a list of the cases that the state medical examiner’s office has turned over to the Maryland attorney general’s office. That list cases of police custody deaths, people who are in prison, people who died during a shootout with police, people who died during a chase with police. So it pretty much covers decades of police-involved killings, or police in custody deaths, roughly 1314 cases. So it’s pretty broad, it’s a huge list, but it has some pretty important cases in it which we’ll get to later. Nevertheless, it’s broad, it’s been turned over to the attorney general’s office. And so this is the beginning of taking these cases and reexamining them.
Taya Graham: Now, I just want you to explain why the medical examiner’s office is so important, how their processes haven’t been transparent, and how they affect the investigations into police misconduct and police brutality.
Stephen Janis: Well, essentially the medical examiner rules on a manner of death, which can be suicide, accident, natural, or homicide. So take the case that we’ll talk about later, Anton Black, who was a young man who was killed by police during an arrest. If the medical examiner rules it an accident, which they did in this case, it’s going to be very hard to prosecute police.
So a medical examiner by ruling a case as undetermined, which means they don’t determine any manner of death, or by ruling a case an accident, where it seems like force led to the death, can pretty much take police off the hook. And the other aspect of it that’s important that you bring up is that the medical examiner in our state is not elected. In some jurisdictions you have what’s called a coroner, who is elected. But in our jurisdiction, it’s appointed by a board that’s appointed by the governor. So there’s not a lot of accountability to the people. So it’s very easy for a person like that to really not be accountable and to make rulings that are controversial, there’s not a lot anyone can do about it.
Taya Graham: And one thing I’d like to add is that we found out that police officers who were involved in the case of police brutality were often in the room with the medical examiner while they were making the determination. So to me it seems that they could have some undo influence on what the medical examiner ruled.
Stephen Janis: Well, that’s certainly been the allegations of defense attorneys who have sued on behalf of families who alleged that police violated people’s rights when they killed them or abused them. And that type of inter-relationship probably has more influence on the medical examiner than their accountability to the people.
Taya Graham: Absolutely. Now this whole process really hasn’t been transparent to the public. And if it hadn’t been for the George Floyd trial, we may have never gotten this audit in Maryland. So this is incredibly important. Now you brought up a case that occurred in Maryland, and it was the death of Anton Black in the hands of Greensboro Police. Can you talk a little bit about that investigation and why we spoke to an independent pathologist?
Stephen Janis: Well, it took four or five months for the medical examiner office to even release any sort of statement on the death of Anton Black. Anton Black was a 19-year-old track star who was stopped by police in Greensboro, Maryland, and chased to his mother’s home, where they sat on top of him during the arrest. They accused him of kidnapping a child who turned out to be his cousin by marriage, and it was a really big screw up case. And they sat on it for months, which is really the playbook, and why the medical examiners could just say, I’m not going to release it.
Taya Graham: And as a matter of fact, the family didn’t get any information until we started reporting on it and other reporters started covering it. The family needed information for months, and they were simply unresponsive to them.
Stephen Janis: Yeah, and that’s the medical examiner again has no accountability. So they ruled this death and accident due to a heart abnormality, which was really… And we spoke to an independent pathologist, Cyril Wick, and you know what he said, right?
Taya Graham: Absolutely. Dr. Cyril Wick let us know that this was an obvious case of positional asphyxiation. And I think a lot of people now know about positional asphyxiation, but it occurs when someone is prone and laying on the ground and then a weight is placed on top of them. So their lungs can’t expand and essentially they can’t breathe. They slowly die of suffocation.
Stephen Janis: Right, and that’s what happened with George Floyd, it was positional asphyxiation. So this case is a perfect example of why the medical examiner’s office needed to be reviewed, why this review needed to happen. Now, one point about this is it’s a lot of cases. So we put a request into the Maryland attorney general’s office, who has impaneled seven experts to review these cases, to ask how they’re going to whittle them down. But you found something that was interesting when you went through this, the data, right?
Taya Graham: So something I looked into was cases that these deaths were ruled undetermined, but one of the causes that was listed is excited delirium. And this is really bunco science. And Stephen, talk a little bit about what you’ve learned about excited delirium.
Stephen Janis: Well, I had a very engaged period of time with Dr. Fowler when I was investigating taser deaths. And a lot of taser deaths were attributed to “excited delirium.”
Taya Graham: As if someone having electricity jolted through their body would have no impact on their heart. Right?
Stephen Janis: Well, a lot of it was done at the behest of the taser industry, and they didn’t want tasers being the primary cause of death. So at that point when I was interacting with him he gave me a book that explained excited delirium because I had a lot of questions about it. And the book attributed the entire phenomena to a 19th century physical malady that took over people in sanitariums where for a period or three or four weeks they become very excited, and then they die. And they sort of transpose that into the present with no real research or science to say that when a person is in custody and they get tased and they die that it’s not cardiac arrhythmia. Like you say, getting jolted by 20,000 or 50,000 volts, that is actually a 19th century malady of people who were in sanitariums.
Taya Graham: And you know, there’s just sort of an interesting side note that in Colorado, where they’ve had this incredible use of ketamine to subdue people who are considered suspects by the police, oftentimes controlling them for excited delirium was cited as the reason why ketamine was administered.
Stephen Janis: Yeah. So this just shows your point about lack of transparency in the medical examiner’s system, in the whole process. You can take bunk science that everyone knows is BS and put it in an autopsy, like we found 14 cases like you found in this case. You can delay investigations for months, and I think part of that playbook is let’s just wait until it dies out and people stop paying attention and then we’ll release it. So all those elements are why this list is very important. And it also shows that a lot of people die in custody, a lot of people die in jail. A lot of people die during… It’s dangerous. And one of the reasons why you might not want as much law enforcement as we have in this state is because many times people die when they’re in custody of police.
Taya Graham: Absolutely. Now I just want you to let people know what the next steps are. What are we going to be seeing in this process?
Stephen Janis: Well, we are waiting for a comment from the attorney general’s office on how they’re going to whittle it down, if they do at all. They have impaneled seven experts from across the country and around the world, pathologists, psychologists, to review these cases. So I think the next step is we will see what the attorney general’s office does with this raw data and how they decide to process it, and what they decide is important and what they want to prioritize. I mean, the three cases that we have reported on that will be critical are the case of Anton Black, Tyrone West, who was killed by police during a routine traffic stop, and Towan Boyd, who died during a similar [incident], and all of them have elements of positional asphyxiation. So those are the ones that I think will be very important to look at.
Taya Graham: Yeah, we’re definitely going to keep an eye on those cases and keep you updated. So thank you for joining us for this breaking news update. I’m Taya Graham, this is Stephen Janis, and we are the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.