Expert witness pinpoints Floyd’s final breath and dismisses talk of overdose

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Written by Shaila Dewan

It was a video everyone in the courtroom has been shown repeatedly, of George Floyd facedown on the street with Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck. But this time, it was slowed down so the jury could see the briefest widening of Floyd’s eyes — what the expert witness on the stand Thursday said was his last conscious moment.

“One second he’s alive, and one second he’s no longer,” said the witness, Dr. Martin Tobin, adding, “That’s the moment the life goes out of his body.”

Tobin, a pulmonologist who specializes in the mechanics of breathing, presented the prosecution’s first extended testimony on a central question in the murder trial of Chauvin: how Floyd died. “You’re seeing here fatal injury to the brain from a lack of oxygen,” Tobin said.

Tobin said Chauvin and other police officers had restricted Floyd’s breathing by flattening his rib cage against the pavement and pushing his cuffed hands into his torso, and by the placement of Chauvin’s knees on his neck and back.

The doctor pinpointed the moment he said Floyd had shown signs of a brain injury, four minutes before Chauvin lifted his knee from his body.

After two days of sometimes tedious law enforcement testimony on procedures and policy, jurors appeared to be riveted by Tobin’s ability to break down complex physiological concepts, at times scribbling notes in unison.

Leaning into the microphone, tie slightly askew, Tobin used his hands and elbows to demonstrate how people breathe. He gave anatomy lessons by asking jurors to palpate their own necks, and showed an artist’s rendering of how three officers, including Chauvin, had been positioned on Floyd.

He delivered his opinions without a shred of ambivalence, noting that his conclusions were based on “very precise” scientific knowledge like the level of oxygen when someone loses consciousness.

A protester stands near from the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis on Wednesday, April 7, 2021, where Derek Chauvin is on trial. (Aaron Nesheim/The New York Times)

Tobin said he had watched portions of the video evidence hundreds of times. He had calculated what he said was the exact amount of weight Chauvin had placed on Floyd’s neck (86.9 pounds), clocked Floyd’s respiratory rate and marked the instant he took his final breath: 8:25:15 p.m.

He reassured 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.”

His testimony may help prosecutors overcome the fact that the official autopsy report did not use the word “asphyxia,” and seemed to make irrelevant the exact position of Chauvin’s knees, which has come up several times.

“I don’t think I’ve seen an expert witness as effective as this,” said Mary Moriarty, the former chief public defender of Hennepin County, who has been following the televised trial. “He appears to be the world’s foremost expert on this, and he explained everything in English, in layman’s terms.”

It was a video everyone in the courtroom has been shown repeatedly, of George Floyd facedown on the street with Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck. But this time, it was slowed down so the jury could see the briefest widening of Floyd’s eyes — what the expert witness on the stand Thursday said was his last conscious moment.

“One second he’s alive, and one second he’s no longer,” said the witness, Dr. Martin Tobin, adding, “That’s the moment the life goes out of his body.”

Tobin, a pulmonologist who specializes in the mechanics of breathing, presented the prosecution’s first extended testimony on a central question in the murder trial of Chauvin: how Floyd died. “You’re seeing here fatal injury to the brain from a lack of oxygen,” Tobin said.

Tobin said Chauvin and other police officers had restricted Floyd’s breathing by flattening his rib cage against the pavement and pushing his cuffed hands into his torso, and by the placement of Chauvin’s knees on his neck and back.

The doctor pinpointed the moment he said Floyd had shown signs of a brain injury, four minutes before Chauvin lifted his knee from his body.

After two days of sometimes tedious law enforcement testimony on procedures and policy, jurors appeared to be riveted by Tobin’s ability to break down complex physiological concepts, at times scribbling notes in unison.

Leaning into the microphone, tie slightly askew, Tobin used his hands and elbows to demonstrate how people breathe. He gave anatomy lessons by asking jurors to palpate their own necks, and showed an artist’s rendering of how three officers, including Chauvin, had been positioned on Floyd.

He delivered his opinions without a shred of ambivalence, noting that his conclusions were based on “very precise” scientific knowledge like the level of oxygen when someone loses consciousness.

Tobin said he had watched portions of the video evidence hundreds of times. He had calculated what he said was the exact amount of weight Chauvin had placed on Floyd’s neck (86.9 pounds), clocked Floyd’s respiratory rate and marked the instant he took his final breath: 8:25:15 p.m.

The Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis on Thursday, April 8, 2021, where Derek Chauvin is on trial. (Aaron Nesheim/The New York Times)

He reassured 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.”

His testimony may help prosecutors overcome the fact that the official autopsy report did not use the word “asphyxia,” and seemed to make irrelevant the exact position of Chauvin’s knees, which has come up several times.

“I don’t think I’ve seen an expert witness as effective as this,” said Mary Moriarty, the former chief public defender of Hennepin County, who has been following the televised trial. “He appears to be the world’s foremost expert on this, and he explained everything in English, in layman’s terms.”

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