Autopsy Says George Floyd Died Of Mechanical Asphyxia. What Does That Mean?

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images.
A new, independent autopsy ordered by George Floyd’s family has determined he was killed by "asphyxiation from sustained pressure” while former police officer Derek Chauvin — who’s since been fired from the force — was kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. On Monday, June 1, the family released the findings, which noted Floyd’s killing was "caused by asphyxia due to neck and back compression that led to a lack of blood flow to the brain.” 
"George died because he needed a breath, a breath of air," the Floyd family attorney Ben Crump said during a news conference Monday afternoon. "For George Floyd, the ambulance was his hearse." The report notes that weight, positioning, and even the handcuffs Floyd was wearing were all contributing factors that prevented his diaphragm from functioning properly, leading to his death, according to ABC News.
The report is contradictory to the preliminary results from the examination conducted by the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office, which determined he was not strangled and “revealed no physical findings that support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia.” It stated that Floyd died from other factors that had to do with being restrained, The Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper reports.
Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, but Crump asserted on Monday that he should be instead be charged with first-degree murder. 
Floyd "had no underlying medical problem that caused or contributed to his death,” according to one independent examiner hired by the family, Michael Baden, the University of Michigan Medical School's director of autopsy and forensic services who also performed independent autopsies on Eric Garner and Michael Brown (who were killed by police officers in Staten Island, New York, and Ferguson, Missouri, respectively). “He was in good health. The compressive pressure of the neck and back are not seen at autopsy because the pressure has been released by the time the body comes to the medical examiner's office.” 
More information on what asphyxia is and what this finding means, below.

What is asphyxia? 

When someone’s been asphyxiated, it means their breathing has been impaired, which results in the decreased delivery of oxygen to the body’s tissues and cells. It can be fatal. It can happen traumatically when someone experiences an intense compression of “the chest area,” according to the medical definition. But can also happen from choking, drowning, and strangulation. In Greek, the term literally translates to “stopping of the pulse,” according to Medscape

What is mechanical asphyxiation? 

"The evidence is consistent with mechanical asphyxia as the cause of death and homicide as the manner of death," said Allecia Wilson, MD, director of autopsy and forensic sciences at the University of Michigan and one of the independent examiners in this case.
The term “mechanical” means some kind of physical force (like a knee) is involved, and interferes with the delivery and uptake of oxygen. “Most mechanical asphyxiants affect breathing or blood flow, the latter usually due to neck vessel or thoracic compression,” Medscape notes. Non-mechanical asphyxiations might be caused by chemicals in the air, for example. 

How did being kneed cause George Floyd to asphyxiate? 

The independent examiners say that the knee on Floyd's back compressed his lungs and stopped them from being able to take in or expel air. He couldn't breathe, as he stated to the officers in video captured of the horrific incident
However, this new autopsy noted that it wasn’t just the knee that caused Floyd’s death, but also because of the other officers who held him down. “Not only was the knee on George’s neck a cause of his death, but so was the weight of the other two police officers on his back, who not only prevented blood flow into his brain but also air flow into his lungs,” explained Antonio Romanucci, a lawyer for the family, according to The New York Times. These officers were also fired, but as of now, no charges have been brought against them.
To help bring attention to the police killing of George Floyd, you can sign the petition here, or donate to local organizations like Black Vision Collective or Reclaim the Block via the Minnesota Freedom Fund here.

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