As the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin starts in Minneapolis, much of the trial will focus on the role of fentanyl in the body of George Floyd as the possible cause for his death. Notably, a new study in the last week reinforces prior research showing an alarming increase in the abuse of this powerful drug and deaths associated from it. In some counties, there was an almost 75% increase in the first half of 2020 in fatal drug overdoses with fentanyl as the main culprit.
While Floyd denied using drugs, he later said he was “hooping,” or taking drugs. That was confirmed in the autopsy which found that Floyd died from “cardiopulmonary arrest while being restrained by law enforcement officer(s).” The state’s criminal complaint against Chauvin said the autopsy “revealed no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation. Mr. Floyd had underlying health conditions including coronary artery disease and hypertensive heart disease.” He also was COVID-19 positive.
Andrew Baker, Hennepin County’s chief medical examiner, strongly suggested that the primary cause was a huge amount of fentanyl in Floyd’s system: “Fentanyl at 11 ng/ml — this is higher than (a) chronic pain patient. If he were found dead at home alone & no other apparent causes, this could be acceptable to call an OD (overdose). Deaths have been certified w/levels of 3.” Baker also told investigators that the autopsy revealed no physical evidence suggesting Floyd died of asphyxiation. The toxicology report on Floyd’s blood also noted that “in fatalities from fentanyl, blood concentrations are variable and have been reported as low as 3 ng/ml.” Floyd had almost four times the level of fentanyl considered potentially lethal.
That level of fentanyl will be tied to Floyd complaining about being unable to breathe. Floyd stated that he could not breathe while sitting in the police cruiser and before he was ever restrained on the ground. That is consistent with the level of fentanyl in his system that can cause “slowed or stopped breathing.”
Notably, the report shows that Floyd had both fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system. That is the combination discussed in the recent study (and past studies) as a commonly lethal combination.
The new Quest study shows that lethal overdoses overwhelmingly involve combinations with fentanyl, particularly methamphetamine: “Most overdose deaths involving opioids such as fentanyl also involve concurrent use of benzodiazepines, cocaine, or methamphetamine.”
The expert testimony on such combinations will be the key to the trial of Chauvin. Much turns on the result. Indeed, there is a real danger of a cascading failure of all four cases if the jury hangs or acquits.
As I have previously noted, the role of fentanyl does not mean that Chauvin has an insurmountable defense. It makes this a stronger manslaughter than murder case. However, Floyd was clearly in distress and one of the other officers suggested moving him (which Chauvin countermanded). That could still constitute manslaughter if Chauvin knew or should have known that his knee restraint was endangering Floyd’s life.