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Oped: Summary of Medical Testimony in George Floyd’s Trial

(The following is an Op-ed that was back logged due to technical issues.)

Emmanuel Idehen-Ovabor
Connector Staff

Over the past couple of weeks, the talk of the nation has been focused on the trial of Derek Chauvin regarding the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020. For those who have not been attentive to the trial, Derek Chauvin was officially charged and convicted of 2nd degree unintentional murder, 3rd degree murder, and 2nd degree manslaughter as of April 26th. The verdict provides closure for the family of George Floyd who, along with many, witnessed the 9-plus minutes of agony in extreme clarity. However, despite damning visual evidence by what was captured on camera, Black people around the country were doubtful that a guilty verdict would be reached. Time and again the judicial system has failed to convict police malpractice, exemplified in the 1992 beating of Rodney King, to the recent asphyxiation of Eric Garner in 2014. The job of policing is often revered and protected in the face of injustice, but justice prevailed in the case of George Floyd. A pivotal reason was the testimony of medical professionals who were able to comprehensively analyze and diagnose the constraints on the body, and the effects of Chauvin’s use of force. Many of those diagnoses, however, may have been missed by viewers watching the trial because of how complicated and lengthy the trial was. Therefore, this article will review the essential medical factors that attributed to the murder of George Floyd, and therefore the convinction of Derek Chauvin.

Prone Positioning, one main point of the trial was George Floyd’s ability to adequately ventilate air and respire oxygen under the deadly conditions imposed by Officer Chauvin. The prosecutors called several expert medical witnesses to testify about the condition of George Floyd during the murder, and after arrival at the hospital, one of them being world-renowned pulmonologist, Dr. Martin Tobin. After reportedly analyzing the evidence for countless hours, Dr. Tobin was able to derive conclusions as to the contributing factors to Floyd’s death, deeming the primary cause as hypoxia due to asphyxia, or lack of oxygen due to suffocation. As many know from basic biology, people use oxygen in vital processes like cellular respiration among others. Dr. Tobin explained that George Floyd was under conditions that prevented him from adequately ventilating air, and inhaling enough oxygen. The diaphragm and the rib cage play essential roles in breathing, as they aid in expanding and contracting the lungs. Because George Floyd was wedged between the pavement, the vehicle, and the bodies of officers while laying in a prone position, air could not adequately pass into his lungs. Moreover, the combined factors inhibited Floyd’s ability to expand his chest and intake adequate amounts of oxygen, contributing to his suffocation.

Chauvin’s Knee, In addition to the prone positioning, Chauvin’s knee placement on Floyd’s neck played a significant role in the suffocation and murder holistically. Dr. Tobin testified that 91.5 pounds of force was applied to the hypopharynx at certain times during the murder. The hypopharynx is one of the locations in the neck that is not protected by cartilage or hard tissue like the pharynx or the nuchal ligament, but is still part of the necessary passageway for air to enter the lungs and for us to breathe. Because of the lack of protection, Chauvin’s knee would often occlude that space and inhibit George Floyd to adequately breathe.

Carbon Monoxide, The lawyer in Chauvin’s defense would often mention the presence of carbon monoxide in Floyd’s bloodstream to dissuade the jury from acknowledging the primary cause of death, the lack of oxygen from suffocation. Frequently when doing so, Floyd’s carboxyhemoglobin levels were mentioned. Hemoglobin is a protein in the bloodstream that, similar to a mail person delivering packages, delivers oxygen to all of the necessary cells and tissues throughout the body. Moreover, despite delivering the useful oxygen molecules, carbon monoxide molecules can also bind to hemoglobin creating a carboxyhemoglobin complex. Carbon monoxide is toxic, as it displaces the oxygen required to sustain life, but individuals may still have between 2.1% to 9% depending on smoking habits. In George Floyd’s case, the oxygen saturation, or the amount of oxygen that was bound to the hemoglobin in the blood, was 98%. This means that only 2% of the hemoglobin at most could have been saturated with carbon monoxide, as the oxygen had taken up the available hemoglobin, an essential flaw to Chauvin’s defense case.

Toxicology Defense, Chauvin’s defense lawyer would also mention Floyd’s substance abuse to dissuade from the primary cause of death, specifically referencing fentanyl abuse. Fentanyl is an opioid, a class of drug that is synthetically made to reduce painful sensations by inhibiting endorphin receptors in the brain. According to forensic toxicologist Daniel Isenschmid, the fentanyl that was in Floyd’s system was less than what persisted in the average DUI. Moreover, in many of the DUI cases, the offenders were arrested alive; they did not die from their consumption nor from restraint. In the case of George Floyd, where the defense argument is that Floyd died from drug abuse rather than excessive force, the results do not concur with the national averages in toxicology.

The medical science provides a clear understanding of how George Floyd died in May of 2020. However, this case holistically speaks to the issues of police brutality, and substance abuse; two issues that the nation has struggled with for far too long. George Floyd’s murder has provoked political action and change within those two arenas that will hopfully leave a significant impact on our society, and cement a positive legacy for George Floyd.

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