Former Allegheny County Coroner and renowned forensic pathologist, Dr. Cyril Wecht, has seen many incidents of police abuse of power over the years. Wecht became an outspoken advocate for police reform following the Jonny Gammage case in Pittsburgh – where after a traffic stop, police held Gammage to the ground in a prone position, applying pressure to his body, and within seven minutes, Gammage was dead The cause of death was found to be “asphyxiation due to pressure applied to the chest and neck.”
The George Floyd case, Wecht said after repeatedly viewing the videotape of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck as Floyd called out, “I can’t breathe,” is the most “egregious” incident of its type he has ever seen.
Wecht spoke with the Chronicle by phone about the Floyd case last week. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You have said, “This case is extremely barbaric.” What do you mean by that?
I have been involved with other cases involving positional asphyxiation, compression asphyxiation. You’ll recall Jonny Gammage here in Pittsburgh and Charles Dixon, also in Pittsburgh, an African American male (who, in 2003, was smothered by police officers who had posed him face down and applied pressure while arresting him). And I’ve had probably over the years now a dozen cases like this, of different kinds. I truly mean, without engaging in hyperbole, that this was the most egregious, savage, barbaric. It was absolutely atrocious.
What this Derek Chauvin is doing is going on for about nine minutes. For approximately, two minutes and 53 seconds – and these are the official records – George Floyd has gone completely limp, is not uttering a sound, let alone a word, and for almost three minutes Chauvin continues to apply that pressure. He looks at people, he knows he’s being videoed, he knows other officers are there. I think what he is saying is “screw you” to the world, to the African Americans – and there are white people there too – who are screaming and yelling and trying to get him off, and he is saying “screw you.”
Not to diminish the significance and horrible circumstances of these other cases – Charles Dixon, Jonny Gammage, to be specific in terms of their Pittsburgh locale – but in terms of what was done, the time period, the circumstances, the apprehension and so on, they don’t come near the scenario of the circumstances of this case.
After the Jonny Gammage case, you became an advocate for protocols prohibiting police from doing this sort of thing, didn’t you?
Yes. In that regard I want to mention two things. Number one, and this is important to me, in the 20 years in which I was coroner, two separate tenure periods, 1970-1980 and 1996-2006, I conducted an open inquest in every police-related death, pursuit, apprehension, arrest, incarceration. Every police-related death was subject to an open inquest in which the officers involved were called in to testify under oath.
The second point I want to make is, I hope that my words and comments, which became a national matter on Jonny Gammage, contributed in some way to the outcry that was heard and as a result of that case – which was 1995, and there were others like it – every state police agency, every large police agency of a local nature, many other groups and organizations nationally, the Canadian Mounted Police and so on, adopted this as a regulatory guideline, a prohibition within their protocol, of not placing someone in a prone position with their face down, already compromising their breathing and then kneeling into them and further compromising. That is prohibited.
You are supposed to sit somebody up. In this case, it was very simple. He was already handcuffed, just sit him up, place him against the tire or fender of the car. What was the problem?
What do you make of the different reports coming out of the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office and the private medical examiner that was hired by Floyd’s attorneys?
I have been quite critical that the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office spoke out as quickly as it did and made a statement “no physical evidence of a struggle.” That was premature for three reasons. Number one: you don’t release your findings in a case like this until you have seen microscopic autopsy tissue slides; two, you have gotten back the toxicology report; and three, most importantly in this case, a brain has to be fixed in formalin for two weeks or more. The consistency changes and the brain is examined by a forensic neuro-pathologist with special stains that are not used or found in a regular pathology laboratory, special stains are done to show evidence of hypoxia. And with a nine-minute period of diminished oxygenation, I am sure that such changes would have been evidenced, and will be if that brain examination is to be conducted. Obviously, it had not been performed at that time one or two days later.
The other criticism that I have of that Hennepin County Medical Examiner is, the way I’m reading it, he places the heart conditions first and then he said, “and or associated with that positional asphyxiation of the neck and compression.” That is incorrect. As Michael Baden pointed out correctly in his second autopsy, it is the compression of the neck which is the principle factor here leading to the death.
I’m not saying that (a preexisting heart condition) should not have been mentioned, but it’s not to be given out as the primary cause of death.
That’s the proper way. Compression of the neck resulting in asphyxiation and contributing would have been any cardiac conditions which he claims to have found significant contributing factors.
Is there anything else you want to add?
This case emphasizes something I have been saying for many, many years and that is an educational, professional, procedural revolution in law enforcement, to upgrade the requirements in terms of eligibility to apply. Do extensive psychological testing on individuals, have extended, expanded educational pre-official employment training with a lot of discussions by many people including psychologists and psychiatrists and others, then, at least every few years, occasional psychological training.
It is very important to find out what kinds of people you are putting in these positions. And with all of that, their pay should be increased. It’s about time for America to wake up, law enforcement officers, school teachers, these are important, two major segments of our society. To underpay them as we do while ball players and athletes of different kinds make in the millions of dollars, talk about blatant hypocrisy and arrogance.
We have to wake up here and deal with law enforcement in the way it is necessary, and this case highlights that. And this case also highlights a deep-seated racism that continues to exist in America.
I can only hope that people will learn and that, while George Floyd paid the price of his life, that society will have gained something regrettably from his death. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.