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Fact check: George Floyd's death ruled a homicide, not fentanyl overdose

McKenzie Sadeghi, USA TODAY
·6 min read
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The claim: The cause of George Floyd's death was a drug overdose

Following weeks of testimony in a closely watched case, a 12-member jury found former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin guilty on all counts in the death of George Floyd, a 46-year old Black man who died while being restrained by Chauvin in police custody last May.

As Americans flooded the streets to mark the verdict, misinformation erupted on social media.

Despite video evidence of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes, a viral social media post claims Floyd's death was the result of a drug overdose.

"Derek Chauvin is not responsible for George Floyd's drug overdose," reads a screenshot of a tweet shared to Instagram on April 20 with more than 5,000 likes.

In the photo's caption, the user added other misleading claims such as: Floyd had COVID-19; had no injuries to his neck, muscles, esophagus trachea or brain; he went into cardiac arrest from drug overdose; and his lungs were three times normal size, "indicative of opiate overdose."

Similar versions of the claim have been shared across other platforms. One Facebook page wrote on April 20, "Science says Floyd died of an overdose & also says he wasn't suffocated."

Fact check: Arrest video, autopsy contradict claim that George Floyd's death was staged

USA TODAY reached out to the Instagram user and Facebook page for comment. The Instagram post has apparently been deleted.

Autopsy cites 'restraint and neck compression'

The Hennepin County medical examiner's office ruled Floyd's death was a homicide caused by "cardiopulmonary arrest" complicated by "restraint, and neck compression" while he was being subdued by police.

Medical Examiner Andrew Baker testified that the way officers held Floyd down and compressed his neck while restraining him "was just more than Mr. Floyd could take," given the condition of his heart.

Similarly, an independent autopsy commissioned by Floyd's family ruled "asphyxiation from sustained pressure was the cause" of Floyd's death.

Floyd family attorney Benjamin Crump said at a news conference in June 2020 that Dr. Michael Baden and Dr. Allecia Wilson performed the autopsy, finding there was "neck and back compression that led to a lack of blood flow to the brain."

Dr. Martin Tobin, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist of Loyola University Medical Center, also testified during Chauvin's trial that Floyd died of a lack of oxygen from being pinned to the pavement with a knee on his neck. He added, “A healthy person subjected to what Mr. Floyd was subjected to would have died."

Fact check: Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all counts but has yet to be sentenced

Tobin noted Floyd's body position – officers lifting up his handcuffed arms, Chauvin's knee on his neck, back and sides – are what led to his low oxygen levels, resulting in "low tidal volume, which gives you shallow breaths."

Experts agree Floyd did not die of overdose

While findings from Floyd's autopsy revealed 11 nanograms per milliliter of fentanyl in his blood, medical experts called as prosecution witnesses agreed the amount of fentanyl was not enough to be considered fatal.

Dr. Daniel Isenschmid, a forensic toxicologist at NMS Labs in Pennsylvania, testified and presented data showing the levels of methamphetamine found in Floyd's system were lower than the average amount found in 94% of DUI cases in 2020.

Cardiologist Jonathan Rich told the court: "I can state with a high degree of medical certainty that George Floyd did not die from a primary cardiac event, and he did not die from a drug overdose."

Rich added had it not been for Chauvin's restraint, he believes Floyd would have lived.

Dr. Lindsey Thomas, an expert witness who has reviewed documents and videos in the case, echoed Tobin's testimony and noted the slow nature of Floyd's death supports the conclusion that he did not die of a fentanyl overdose.

Fact check: Derek Chauvin did not have hand in his pocket while kneeling on George Floyd

USA TODAY has previously debunked the claim that Floyd had enough fentanyl in his system to kill three grown men.

Other false claims surrounding autopsy

Aside from falsely claiming that Floyd died of a drug overdose, the Instagram post makes other inaccurate claims regarding the autopsy report.

While Floyd's autopsy showed he had been infected with the coronavirus when he died, it was not listed as a factor in his death. The medical examiner said Floyd tested positive for the virus on April 3, 2020, and he was likely asymptomatic when he died on May 25.

Further, it is false to claim that Floyd had no physical injuries. Tobin said Floyd straightening out his legs after about five minutes was a signal that he was having a type of seizure caused by a brain injury from oxygen deprivation.

The autopsy did not find any "life-threatening" injuries in Floyd's neck near his head, spine, chest, brain or skull, however, the report identified blunt-force injuries to his face, shoulders, hands, arms and legs, a broken rib and bruises on the wrists from handcuffs.

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Additionally, the report does not say Floyd's lungs were three times normal size, as the post claims. The autopsy states sections of the right and left lung showed "generally normal overall architecture."

Our rating: False

The claim that the cause of Floyd's death was a fentanyl overdose is FALSE, based on our research. The medical examiner's autopsy and an independent autopsy done at the request of Floyd's family both ruled his death a homicide. Floyd's toxicology report revealed fentanyl in his system, however, experts agree it was not enough to be considered fatal. COVID-19 was not listed as a factor in Floyd's death, and claims that Floyd didn't have any life-threatening injuries are misleading. Floyd's lack of oxygen during his arrest resulted in brain damage and caused his heart to stop.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: George Floyd autopsy ruled his death a homicide