From the first hours after George Floyd died on Lake Street in Minneapolis, the rush to convict the officers who took him into custody seemed unstoppable. The frenzy was fueled by a video of one of the officers kneeling on Floyd, seemingly on his throat, while the officers waited for an ambulance to arrive. Every politician in Minnesota (and elsewhere) denounced the video as “appalling,” “disgusting,” and so on, and called for the policemen’s heads. Only a few brave souls suggested that we should at least wait to learn the cause of Floyd’s death before stringing anyone up. Or burning anything down.
Today we got the first information from Hennepin County’s Medical Examiner, in an attachment to the criminal complaint against officer Derek Chauvin:
The Hennepin County Medical Examiner (ME) conducted Mr. Floyd’s autopsy on May 26, 2020. The full report of the ME is pending but the ME has made the following preliminary findings. The autopsy revealed no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation. Mr. Floyd had underlying health conditions including coronary artery disease and hypertensive heart disease. The combined effects of Mr. Floyd being restrained by the police, his underlying health conditions and any potential intoxicants in his system likely contributed to his death.
Emphasis added. Further, the complaint’s Statement of Probable Cause recites that Floyd complained of being unable to breathe well before Officer Chauvin put his knee on Floyd’s neck:
While standing outside the car, Mr. Floyd began saying and repeating that he could not breathe.
Does this mean that the officers’ handling of the situation was a model of fine police work? Of course not. And the manner in which they handled Floyd could have contributed to his death, according to the Medical Examiner. But the outrage over the Floyd case has mostly been based on the assumption that Officer Chauvin choked him to death by kneeling on his throat. If that assumption is false, the story is far more nuanced.
There is a great deal about this incident that we do not know. To cite just one example, we don’t know, as far as I am aware, whether Floyd was, in fact, the person who tried to pass a counterfeit bill. We also don’t know whether drugs played a role in his death; the Medical Examiner refers to “potential intoxicants in his system.” The full report will contain chemical analyses of any such intoxicants. Maybe there weren’t any, but at this point, no one has ruled out the possibility that Floyd died not on account of police brutality, but from a drug overdose.
It may be that when all the facts are in, we will conclude that George Floyd died as a result of negligence on the part of Minneapolis policemen. If so, there will be plenty of time for an accounting. But today’s disclosure of the Medical Examiner’s preliminary findings reminds us why lynch mobs have always been a bad idea, and calls for overnight justice are nearly always misguided.