David Fowler, Maryland's former longtime chief medical examiner, drew national attention recently when he testified in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
It was Dr. Fowler's opinion that the victim died not of a lack of oxygen, as other medical experts had explained, but by a suddenly erratic heartbeat brought on, in part, by breathing in carbon monoxide fumes from a nearby vehicle exhaust.
Last week, a letter protesting Fowler's conclusions was sent to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh and others. It was signed by 431 doctors from across the country. In it, they refer to the pathologist's testimony as "baseless," as having revealed "obvious bias" and as raising "malpractice concerns." Further, they called on authorities to investigate similar cases handled by the medical examiner's office covering the years Fowler was in charge from 2003 until his retirement in 2019. Frosh and Gov. Larry Hogan agreed to conduct such a review, which is expected to call on outside experts and attorneys to pore over cases — perhaps 15 or more per year — involving deaths taking place in the custody of police.
Take, for example, the case of Anton Black, the 19-year-old who died in police custody in the Eastern Shore town of Greensboro in 2018 under circumstances strikingly similar to the Floyd case. Fowler ultimately ruled in that case that Anton Black suffered from a sudden cardiac event. With help from the ACLU of Maryland, the victim's family is now suing the state in federal court, an action that Maryland's attorney general is constitutionally required to defend — while simultaneously reviewing Fowler's work.
Frosh's spokesperson said attorneys looking into Fowler's past cases will steer clear of those assigned to defend him in the Anton Black lawsuit, and that's appropriate. But we would also expect the attorney general to recognize that if this review finds the former medical examiner acted with gross negligence, the state would no longer be required to represent Fowler and should not continue to do so.
That would be an obvious conflict of interest, but hardly the only one in a matter dripping with ethical concerns. Perhaps the most glaring is the possibility that Fowler's testimony in the Chauvin trial was influenced by the thousands of dollars he was paid from Chauvin's defense team, who relied on him to bolster their case on the witness stand.
It's important to remember that Fowler has not been charged with any crime. By all previous accounts, he has been well regarded in his field. Nor is it even clear that his views were necessarily invalid.
We urge Hogan to provide Frosh with all necessary resources to conduct his review as completely and expeditiously as possible. Much is at stake, including the credibility of not just law enforcement but of the broader criminal justice system — in Maryland and beyond.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE BALTIMORE SUN