An early-stage police report describing George Floyd’s death as a vague “medical incident” went viral on Tuesday, the same day former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering Mr Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes during an arrest last May for a counterfeit $20 bill.
In the original police bulletin that went out to the public, here’s how the Minneapolis police department categorised the gruesome murder millions of people would later see on social media video:
“He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.”
The report did not mention that the source of his medical distress, according to the unanimous jury verdict on Tuesday, was Chauvin’s knee being driven into his neck and back for minutes on end.
John Elder, the Minneapolis Police Department’s director of public information, authored the bulletin. He told The Los AngelesTimes last summer he was working from information he got from officers on the ground, who didn’t log any use of force initially.
“This had literally zero intent to deceive or be dishonest or disingenuous. Had we known that this [situation] was what we saw on the video, that statement would have been completely different,” Mr Elder told the paper.
During the three-week long trial of Chauvin, jurors were tasked with answering what ultimately caused Mr Floyd’s death.
On the witness stand, Dr Andrew Baker, the county medical examiner who performed Mr Floyd’s autopsy, reiterated his original findings that the death was a homicide. Police restraints were the main cause of death, he concluded, while other factors like Mr Floyd’s heart disease and drug use played a role without being “direct causes”.
“Mr Floyd’s use of fentanyl did not cause the subdual or neck restraint,” he said. “His heart disease did not cause the subdual or the neck restraint.”
Outside experts called by the state reached similar conclusions, ruling out a drug overdose or heart disease. Dr Martin Tobin, a lung specialist, compared police treatment of Mr Floyd to a “vice” that squeezed the air out of his body.
“A healthy person subjected to what Mr Floyd was subjected to would’ve died as a result,” he said.
Another, Dr Bill Smock, argued that officers should’ve carried out their legal duty and career training to provide medical care to someone in their custody much sooner, rather than waiting for the ambulance they called for Mr Floyd.
“As soon as Mr Floyd is unconscious, he should’ve been rolled over,” Mr Smock said. “We have documentation on the video that the officer says, ‘I can’t find a pulse.’ That’s clearly, when you look at the video, it should’ve been started way before.”
One paramedic testified that Mr Floyd was dead by the time the ambulance arrived.
The defence, meanwhile, suggested Mr Floyd’s underlying health conditions and drug use ultimately killed him, not the knee on his neck.
Dr David Fowler, a former Maryland chief medical examiner and an expert witness for the defence, argued a confluence of different factors – fentanyl intoxication, pre-existing heart disease, potential exposure to carbon monoxide from a police car’s tailpipe, and officers’ restraints – all had an impact on Mr Floyd’s death. As a result, he said, the cause of death shouldn’t be considered a homicide, but rather be understood as “undetermined”.
“When you put all of those together, it’s very difficult to say which of those is most accurate,” Dr Fowler said, as part of his day-long turn on the witness stand. “I would fall back to ‘undetermined’ in this particular case.”
But it was clear to the bystanders who testified that they were witnessing a murder.
“It’s been nights I stayed up, apologising and apologising to George Floyd for not doing more, and not physically interacting and not saving his life,” said Darnella Frazier, 18, whose live-streamed cell phone video of the arrest was shared widely. “When I look at George Floyd, I look at my dad, I look at my brothers, I look at my cousins, my uncles, because they’re all Black,” she added. “I have a Black father. I have a Black brother. I have Black friends.”
Another bystander, Donald Williams, who had extensive martial arts training, recalled telling Chauvin his restraint amounted to a “blood choke” that could kill someone, prompting him to berate officers and eventually call 911.
“I believe I witnessed a murder. I felt the need to call the police on the police,” he said. “He just pretty much killed this guy that wasn’t resisting arrest,” he added.
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