By Tom Hals
(Reuters) - An independent autopsy that found George Floyd died solely from asphyxiation could actually bolster the defense of the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing him, legal experts said.
The autopsy released on Monday said Floyd's death, which sparked nationwide protests, was a homicide and that he had no underlying medical conditions.
Later on Monday, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner released details of its autopsy findings that also said Floyd's death was a homicide caused by asphyxiation but that he had possible underlying health conditions and intoxicants in his body that may have been contributing factors in his death..
On the surface, the independent autopsy would seem to bolster the prosecution's case against Derek Chauvin, the police officer who knelt on Floyd's neck for several minutes before he died last week.
But legal experts said it could do the opposite by creating confusion in the mind of the jury.
"It will be part of the defense strategy to say they can't even get the cause of death right," said Gerald Lefcourt, a criminal defense attorney.
The independent report was prepared for the Floyd family by Dr. Allecia Wilson of the University of Michigan and Dr. Michael Baden, who has worked on several high-profile murder cases.
Graphic video footage showed Chauvin, who is white, pressing his knee into Floyd's neck. Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, gasped for air and repeatedly groaned: “Please, I can’t breathe,” while bystanders shouted at police to let him up.
Chauvin was charged on Friday with third-degree murder and manslaughter. He has been fired from the Minneapolis police department.
The video reignited an outpouring of rage that civil rights activists said has long simmered in cities across the country over persistent racial bias in the U.S. criminal justice system.
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who is leading the prosecution, is not obligated to use the independent autopsy or introduce it as evidence at trial.
Dan Alonso, a former chief assistant district attorney in Manhattan, said the prosecution "wouldn’t be doing their job if they ignored it."
Former prosecutors and defense attorneys told Reuters that Chauvin faced a very difficult case given the strong video evidence.
If prosecutors introduce the independent report, the defense could seize on the conflicting autopsies to create questions in the jury's mind about the cause of death.
Under U.S. law, prosecutors must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Introducing the report would also allow the defense team to cross-examine Baden and use his long history of work in celebrity trials to cast him as a hired gun, according to defense attorneys.
"This report created a lot of ammunition for a defense team to use in a criminal case or a subsequent civil case," said Paul Callan, a former New York prosecutor.
(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Peter Cooney)