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The New York Times

With George Floyd, a raging debate on prejudice in the science of death

MINNEAPOLIS – From the start, the death of George Floyd has rocked the field of forensic science in the same way it has challenged the police. Days after Floyd’s death on May 25, prosecutors said it was caused not only by the officer kneeling on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, but also by his underlying health issues and drug use. drug. Critics protested that the conclusion reflected racial bias – and served as a perfect example of how forensic science has not done enough to counter its own subjectivity in decisions such as the classification of a death in police custody as a homicide. Sign up for the New York Times newsletter The Morning Public criticism has helped expose lingering tensions in the small but influential world of forensic pathologists, attracting some of the experts who have consulted on the case and may be called upon to testify to defense. . Some of them vigorously opposed a study, published just before the trial began, which measured bias among forensic pathologists, making the unusual decision to request that it be retracted. The timing of publication was “particularly alarming in the age of Black Lives Matter, critical race theory, riots, etc.,” wrote Milwaukee County medical examiner Dr. Brian L. Peterson in one of many emails to a private medical examiner. Pathology mailing list obtained from The New York Times. “What is awakened today is fodder tomorrow.” Forensic scientists say, of course, like everyone else, they have biases – but they have already put in place many systems, including a courtroom review of their decisions, to curb them. In fact, Peterson wrote, the idea that cause of death determinations are objective and science-based is “fundamentally absurd.” “Is there anyone in our profession who hasn’t at one time or another joked about ‘spinning the wheel of death’ and picking one?” After the Journal of Forensic Sciences published the study, which showed that medically irrelevant information like the victim’s race can influence forensic pathologists’ decisions, Peterson, along with Dr David Fowler and Dr William Oliver, has signed a letter requesting that it be retracted. , calling it “fatally imperfect”. The Journal of Forensic Sciences, which published the article, declined to remove it. Fowler, who testified in Chauvin’s defense Wednesday, is the former chief medical examiner for Maryland, and Oliver is a professor at the Brody School of Medicine in North Carolina. Fowler is named in a civil lawsuit brought by the family of Anton Black, an unarmed black teenager who died in Baltimore in 2018 after officers held him down for about 6 minutes. Fowler’s office called the death an accident. Bias complaints have long hung over the Floyd case. Four days after Floyd’s death, county prosecutors listed what they said were preliminary autopsy findings in a criminal complaint that many said undermined their own case against the officers involved. An opinion piece written by 12 doctors and published in Scientific American called the complaint a “militarization of medical language” which “strengthened white supremacy in the face of the torment of black Americans.” “They took the standard elements of a preliminary autopsy report to cast doubt, to sow uncertainty; to make America think we haven’t seen what we know we have seen, ”they wrote. State Attorney General Keith Ellison quickly took over the case. By this time, the Floyd family had hired two forensic scientists, a white man and a black woman, to perform their own autopsies. Both Dr Michael Baden and Dr Allecia Wilson said asphyxiation, or oxygen starvation, was the cause of death and put the blame directly on the police officers involved. Second autopsies have long been a common practice, in part because forensic pathologists have long-standing relationships with prosecutors and police, raising concerns about their objectivity in deaths involving officers. But in Floyd’s case, the leading professional organization of forensic pathologists, the National Association of Medical Examiners, took the unusual step of issuing a statement that many considered critical of the practice. The main focus of the association appeared to be to defend Dr Andrew Baker, a Hennepin County medical examiner and former association president, who performed the Floyd autopsy. After the publication of his report – which classified the death as homicide and classified heart disease, fentanyl and methamphetamine as contributing factors in Floyd’s death – an emergency fence and concrete barricades were erected around his office. The association’s statement challenged press reports that described Baden and Wilson’s private autopsies as “independent”, implying that Baker’s was compromised. “The independent autopsy is that performed by the forensic pathologist who, unlike private pathologists, has no incentive to offer a certain point of view,” he said. But private autopsies are a common source of income for many forensic pathologists, and the association has started to receive complaints, including one from one of the country’s most renowned medical examiners, Cyril Wecht. Another came from Wilson, one of the pathologists hired by the Floyd family. “Our fight shouldn’t be with each other, but working together to understand why black men die so quickly when taken into custody,” Wilson wrote, saying the Floyd family’s consultation with her was like asking. to a patient to get a second opinion. She noted that the practice never deserved a reprimand from the association. “I am particularly offended because I have seen Dr Baden express controversial opinions my entire career, but when another, a black woman, has a controversial opinion, she is treated very differently,” she wrote. . The association of medical examiners withdrew its statement. Its leaders also invited Dr. Joye Carter to help develop a protocol for second autopsies. Carter said she was the first black woman to be certified in forensic pathology in the United States and the first black person to be appointed chief medical examiner, a position she held in Washington, DC and Houston. She consulted on the Floyd case for prosecution. Carter had terminated his membership in the national association five years earlier. “I never felt welcome. I never felt included, ”she said. “You know, there is a difference between feeling welcomed and feeling tolerated.” She agreed to come back and hoped things had changed, especially after being asked to chair a new diversity committee. Because of this, she said, she did not anticipate any controversy when she joined the Forensic Pathologist Bias study, led by Itiel Dror, a cognitive neuroscientist specializing in expert errors and prejudices. The authors looked at 10 years of child death certificates in Nevada and found that black child deaths were somewhat more likely to be classified as homicides, rather than accidents, compared to child deaths. white. They also sent a death scenario to medical examiners and found that those who responded were more likely to report homicide when the child in the scenario was black and in the care of the little one. mother’s friend only when the child was white and cared for by a grandmother. . The authors said the study was just a starting point for research and suggested forensic scientists further explore how and when contextual information should be used and be transparent in its use. Four of the study’s authors were forensic pathologists, including Carter. In February, Peterson, the potential defense witness in the Floyd’s case, filed an ethics complaint against the four, accusing them of “conduct contrary to the best interests and objectives” of the profession. “By fundamentally accusing every member of ‘unconscious’ racism, a charge that is impossible to prove or disprove, members will now have to face this false question every time they testify in court,” he wrote in the complaint, a copy of which was obtained by the Times. Peterson did not respond to a message left at his office, where a spokesperson said he was on vacation. Ethics complaints are supposed to be confidential and the accused doctors either refused to discuss them or did not respond to a request for comment. The vitriolic response to the study surprised Carter. “I was blown away by what seems like a very furious reaction. And I don’t know if everyone has really read the article for what it is. This is an article that suggests, let’s be aware of this, let’s be proactive in this area, ”she said. “I don’t think anybody, no doctor of color, would say, ‘Damn, this is shocking news.’ This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company

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