By Kenneth Tiven in the US
In a Minneapolis courtroom, riveting expert testimony in the George Floyd murder case was aimed at destroying any defense based on drug use.
In an American murder trial, the 12-person jury must return a unanimous verdict to convict. Defense lawyers for former police officer Derek Chauvin are using their cross-examination to influence at least one juror to believe George Floyd’s drug use was a cause of death, not Chauvin kneeling on his throat for 9-and-a-half minutes.
Elaborating on previous medical and law enforcement witnesses, the prosecution brought Dr Martin Tobin in to explain Floyd died of asphyxia as a result of being handcuffed face down on the street with Chauvin on his neck. Floyd was being “squashed” between the hard ground and the other officers as they pushed his handcuffs high into his back, Tobin says. Such actions would “totally interfere with central features of how we breathe,” he added, demonstrating with his hands what he meant.
Tobin, a specialist in respiratory physiology with 40 years of experience, testified on Thursday that Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck prevented air from getting through the hypopharynx. This is a hollow tube that passes food, water, and air through the bottom of the throat. Floyd’s placement in the prone position also narrowed the hypopharynx, Tobin said.
The defense has argued that Floyd’s high carbon dioxide level recorded at the hospital the night of his death was caused by fentanyl use. But Tobin said that phenomenon is “solely” explained by Floyd’s lack of breathing.
Any “healthy person” subjected to what Floyd was subjected to during his arrest “would have died,” Tobin said, adding, “When you have to breathe through a narrow passageway, it’s like breathing through a drinking straw, but it’s much worse than that.”
The jury has seen all of the videos recorded by bystanders and police body cameras. Floyd stated multiple times that he couldn’t breathe yet Chauvin remained on his neck for several minutes even after Floyd ceased moving and breathing.
In court, one video sequence was slowed down so the jury could see the briefest widening of Floyd’s eyes. “One second he’s alive, and one second he’s no longer,” said Dr Tobin, adding, “That’s the moment the life goes out of his body. You’re seeing here fatal injury to the brain from a lack of oxygen.”
Dr Tobin explained complex physiological concepts a way that kept most jurors busy taking notes. Much like you might find in a courtroom movie, Tobin gave what amounted to anatomy lessons, and used a graphic sketch showing how three officers, including Chauvin, had been positioned on Floyd.
Without any ambivalence he said his conclusions were based on “very precise” scientific knowledge like the level of oxygen when someone loses consciousness. Helpfully he told jurors that many of the medical terms they have heard during the trial — hypoxia, asphyxia, anoxia — all mean essentially the same thing, “a drastically low level of oxygen.”
“He appears to be the world’s foremost expert on this,” said Mary Moriarty, a former chief public defender in Minneapolis. “He explained everything in English, in layman’s terms.”
The jury has heard repeatedly that police officers are taught that restraining people facedown is dangerous. Tobin discounted the oft-repeated adage that someone who can talk can breathe, calling it “a very dangerous mantra to have out there.”
The trial will likely last another week.