What do these things have in common?
Japan’s black widow, George Floyd’s murder, Former Maryland Medical Examiner, Dr. David Fowler, and Kathrine Morris, a Maryland woman found dead in her car in 2012.
By: Vickie Gipson
What do these things have in common? Kanae Kijima, Japan’s black widow, George Floyd’s murder, Dr. David Fowler, the former Maryland Medical Examiner, and Kathrine Morris, a young woman found dead in her car in the spring of 2012 at the Arundel Mills Mall in Hanover, Maryland and whose death was ruled a suicide. Take a minute and think about it! The hints may surprise you – okay- wait…, wait for it….
On the surface, these events may look unrelated but they are linked in a way that our society consistently refuses to acknowledge. Most of these dissonant events occurred while our country was being put to task with renewed calls for police accountability with added pressure coming from the recent unprecedented conviction of former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, in the George Floyd murder case of, not one but, three counts of murder.
During Chauvin’s trial, witness after witness testified to the torture that George Floyd suffered at the hands of Chauvin and the other police officers, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Keung, all of whom knelt on Floyd’s neck, back and legs for over nine (9) minutes until he was dead (See, https://www.npr.org/sections/trial-over-killing-of-george-floyd/2021/04/21/989465546/whats-next-in-the-trials-of-4-former-police-officers-over-george-floyds-murder ). Floyd cried out for his “MAMA” just before he was killed by the police – while officer Tou Thao looked on in a menacing manner and threatened
the crowd into submission. (See, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/george-floyds-mother-not-there-he-used-her-as-sacred-invocation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kosESTzaW8A)
Afraid of confrontation with the police, the crowd stayed on the sidewalk as they stared hypnotically at this horrible death scene. A number of the onlookers captured these horrific events by cell phone video. Several people in the crowd yelled out frantically to the police urging them to get off of Floyd because he was not breathing. Even Judeah Reynolds, a 9 year old child, had the sense and compassion to yell – “GET OFF OF HIM!” (See, https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/news/video/young-eyewitness-testified-chauvin-trial-speaks-guilty-verdict-77210766 ) Donald Williams yelled at Chauvin that he was killing Floyd with the “blood choke hold” and called Chauvin and the other officers “punks” to get their attention (See, https://www.npr.org/sections/trial-over-killing-of-george-floyd/2021/03/30/982663586/jury-in-chauvin-trial-hears-more-from-witness-about-blood-choke).
During the trial the video of Floyd’s death was played again and again. Each time one could hear Floyd gasping for air and the sheer struggle he was having trying to breathe. Listening to the testimony of the witnesses was heart wrenching. Many witnesses cried in a sense of desperation as well as responsibility that they could do nothing but watch Floyd slip away.
During one of the most emotional moments of the trial, witness Charles McMillian broke down and sobbed. McMillian lamented how helpless he felt because there was nothing he could have done to prevent Floyd’s useless death (See, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKTOMwAacVk .) At one point, a witness said that it looked as if Chauvin pressed harder against Floyd, pushing more of Chauvin’s weight as he knelt on top of Floyd, who laid lifeless in the street (See, https://www.startribune.com/witness-derek-chauvin-purposely-shifted-weight-to-add-pressure-on-george-floyd-s-neck/600039838/ ). Many onlookers registered something sinister in Chauvin’s demeanor. It was almost as if he was enjoying himself.
In response to the prosecution’s compelling case, Chauvin’s legal team put on the typical defense case of “it wasn’t my client’s fault” (See, https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/12/us/derek-chauvin-defense-strategy/index.html). Their objective was to claim that Floyd died from some “other” cause of death like drug use, a heart attack, or any explanation other than positional asphyxiation caused by Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck. They only had to get the jury to believe that there was reasonable doubt that there might have been another cause of death other than the one proffered by the prosecution. To support the defense’s narrative of why and how Floyd died, the defense presented the testimony of their lynchpin expert witness, Dr. David Fowler, the former Medical Examiner for the State of Maryland.
Fowler testified at length on Chauvin’s behalf putting forth the false narrative of what the defense claimed caused Floyd’s death (See, https://www.npr.org/2021/04/24/990536193/maryland-to-probe-cases-handled-by-ex-medical-examiner-who-testified-in-chauvin-). One example that seemed the most farfetched was the proposition that Floyd died from the exhaust that came from police car’s tailpipe next to where Floyd lay. Other incredulous possibilities were also proffered even though everyone in the court room saw with their own eyes that Floyd died as he lay under Chauvin’s knee.
The possible causes of death proposed by Fowler were so obviously flawed that over four hundred (400) doctors from across the country signed a petition highlighting the incompetence behind Fowler’s “expert” medical testimony. This petition prompted the Maryland Attorney General, Brian Frosh, to issue a statement that all police “in-custody” deaths in the state of Maryland, during Fowler’s tenure, would be re-examined (See, https://www.newsweek.com/cases-handled-ex-medical-examiner-chauvin-trial-examined-after-doctors-outcry-1586287.)
When Dr. Fowler came to the attention of the Attorney General, what families, like that of Katherine Morris, knew that perhaps the Attorney General did not know, is that Dr. Fowler’s ineptitude and that of the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office, in general, was not limited to “in-custody” deaths. The Morris family and others believe that there is a connection between inept autopsy reports and incidents of alleged police misconduct with the common incendiary factor being race.
Katherine Morris was found dead in her car with two partially lit disposable charcoal grills on the front passenger side of her car. Kathy, as she was known to family and friends, was found lying across the car console with her body extending over to the passenger seat in a twisted and contorted manner. The police at the death scene, not being familiar with how charcoal grills might play a part in Kathy’s death, googled “charcoal grills and death” and found out that this form of suicide was popular in Asian countries. After learning this, and without a proper investigation, the police officers jumped to a determination that Kathy’s death was a suicide. The Medical Examiner, following the lead of the police, rendered a similar determination that Kathy had committed suicide. In fact, this rush to judgement happened within hours of Kathy’s body being transfer to the Medical Examiner’s office. To add insult to injury, the Medical Examiner’s office, which at that time was then headed by Dr. David Fowler, only performed a partial autopsy, meaning that there is a real possibility that important clues to an alternative cause of Kathy’s death may be forever lost.
Once the police officers pulled “the suicide rabbit out of the hat,” they stopped investigating what caused Kathy’s death and began to make the central mistake of seeking justification of suicide over investigation of the totality of the circumstances surrounding the victim’s death to make a fair and objective determination. From that point forward, the Morris family believes that the police only looked for evidence that might support or justify the suicide ruling rather than actually attempting to rule out homicide or some other possible accidental cause. (See https://www.practicalhomicide.com/Research/7mistakes.htm.) Further, key material witnesses were never questioned and crucial videotaped evidence was inexplicably lost. The ineptitude that the family has endured was certainly not just at the hands of the Medical Examiner’s office, but that is a whole other article that might be entitled “50 Examples of Police Misconduct.”
To make this even more of a hornet’s nest, it took eight (8) years for the Morris family to get an administrative hearing to appeal the suicide ruling. In fact, the family had to request intervention from the Governor’s office before they could have their day in court.
Every legal action that the Morris family sought for court intervention to question the handling of Kathy’s death investigation and the inaccurate Medical Examiner’s suicide ruling was stymied by protests from government lawyers asserting that the family had not exhausted its administrative remedies because it had not completed an appeal under administrative law. However, the office that was supposed to handle the appeal had ignored the family’s request for an appeal multiple times. It was the intervention of Governor Hogan’s office that eventually got the family their day in court.
Hands down and without equivocation, the court threw out the Medical Examiner’s ruling of suicide. No surprise, however, this win for the family is being appealed by the government – again! Why is it so important to the government to continue to fight this case? Why do they care if Kathy’s death is ruled a suicide or not? Maybe it is the slippery slope that such a change of ruling might create and the significant exposure that may result if other families follow the lead of the Morris family.
This raises an excellent question, albeit complicated. Whether the lawyers for the government, who are often salaried employees of the government, in “zealously” representing their client and aggressively litigating cases against citizens of that government without appropriately balancing public policy concerns are contributing to their client’s failure to uphold its responsibility to protect its citizens. In so doing, alternatively, one might also opine that those government attorneys are perhaps causing their clients to breach the tenet that government will not waste resources. This is, especially, true when one looks to balancing public policy against the need to win and the reasonableness of litigation in the first instance. Should the government be so ridged that it fails to help grieving parents, sisters and brothers to get the answers that they need to heal? Why is it that the government is pitting itself against grieving families? Why is it the government not trying to provide proactive assistance to its constituents?
Recently, Attorney General Frosh said that he will have all “in-custody” deaths in Maryland, which occurred under Dr. Fowler’s administration, re-examined. However, this late response would not be needed if Frosh and other government officials had listened to the families, who for years have been challenging the autopsy reports issued by the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office. For example, Anton Black’s family brought a lawsuit against Fowler raising many of the issues held by the Morris family. (See, https://www.npr.org/local/305/2021/04/15/987636485/ex-medical-examiner-who-testified-in-chauvin-trial-faces-lawsuit-in-anton-brown-case ). There are other families, which have also protested what they believed were inept autopsy reports such as Tyrone West’s family (See, https://www.wbal.com/article/208580/3/new-autopsy-on-tyrone-west-finds-he-died-of-asphyxiation-while-restrained).
Instead of being concerned about fair treatment and correct medical determinations for all, the Attorney General may be responding to the negative optics of the former medical examiner appearing incompetent with all the recent attention being given to in-custody cases. Perhaps, the Attorney General is in damage control mode because it is hard to argue with 400 doctors when they all appear to, essentially, be stating that Fowler is incompetent. As the petition appeared to question Fowler’s basic medical knowledge, one could reasonably conclude that all autopsies under Fowler’s leadership that were controversial in any way should be re-examined by an independent medical reviewer. This is compelling when one considers that the Morris Family was allegedly told that the medical examiner’s office only considers the position of police and not those issues raised by the family. Therefore, there is no independent assessment of the information given by police to the medical examiner’s office and there is no government entity that could intervene, if a family questions the medical examiner’s opinion or actions or that of police, for that matter there is nowhere to go. The only option left for the family is, expensive and emotionally exhausting litigation.
Allegations of possible coverups runs deep in the Maryland Medical Examiner’s office. Dr. Lee Ann Grossberg, a Forensic Pathologist and expert witness wrote, not one but, two letters to Dr. Fowler, on behalf of the Morris family, asking for the suicide designation to be changed. Dr. Fowler refused to consider these requests. Dr. Grossberg was one of seven expert witnesses in the Morris case and on the stand became quite passionate about the need for the change as the report did not address important issues that would support a determination other than suicide.
These cases often drag on for years. There is no advocacy process within the police departments or local and state governments leaving litigation as the only recourse to ensure that families learn the truth such as a civilian review board to address issues with police or a similar entity to address issues surrounding inadequate or poorly formed medical examiner reports.
For the Morris family, the appeal before an administrative law judge was a grueling exercise that required multiple expert witnesses to point out a plethora of errors in the medical examiner’s autopsy report. Kathy’s mother, Reverend Marguerite Morris, led this charge to action and presented expert after expert and argument after argument to demonstrate the ineptitude of the medical examiner’s report. And, the government still appealed this decision. Some examples of problem areas included the following:
- Murder by Charcoal Grill – Around the time of Kathy’s death, had the police officers conducted a full investigation of her death, and not merely a justification of her suicide, the police would have uncovered that there are a number of cases where people have used charcoal grills as a murder cover-up to make the death scene look like a suicide. Around the time of Kathy’s death, there were numerous articles on the internet about how Kanae Kijima, who had been found guilty of the murder of three men by drugging them and using disposable charcoal grills to suffocate them to death. There are other examples but this is one of most well publicized murder by charcoal grill at the time of Kathy’s death (See, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-17702029 ).
- No Fire Damage in the Car – During the appeal of the medical examiner report, experts testified that, if the grills were lit in Kathy’s car then there would have been interior damage to the car because the briquettes were infused with lighter fluid, which causes a high flashpoint (the initial burst of flames when the briquettes are lit). In addition to no interior fire or smoke damage to Kathy’s car, if the grills were lit in the car, the light from the initial flashpoint would have been caught on the video surveillance cameras. Kathy’s car was captured at several angles on surveillance cameras while in the parking lot throughout the evening on the night that she died.
- Burn Under Clothes, Which had no Significant Damage – Another odd thing was that even though Kathy’s clothing was virtually unaffected by the fire and smoke damage that one might expect of a charcoal grill lit in a car, there was an inexplicable burn on Kathy’s shoulder underneath her clothing, but her clothes were not burned in this area. This could mean a number of things, including that she did not have her clothes on at the time she was burned. Perhaps, she was burned after she died. We may never know the answer regarding how Kathy’s shoulder was burned, but her clothes were not, because the police did not investigate why or how those burns came to be. Instead, the police rushed to judgement at the death scene that Kathy committed suicide and that was that.
- Contorted Body of Victim – As testified by an orthopedic expert, Kathy’s body was found in an unnatural position in her car. She was lying across the console and her body was pointing upside down into the passenger side of the car and twisted in a manner that was unnatural and impossible, biomechanically, for one’s body to come to rest naturally in that position. The security officer that found her body remarked how Kathy’s body was arched over the armrest console in a manner that was so disturbing to him that he made a point of commenting about how the body was positioned in the car. Again, this was not investigated. A number of experts hired by the family pointed out that, in their opinion, it looked like Kathy had been pulled from one side of the car to the other by someone and left in that position, most likely after she was dead or incapacitated.
- Failure to Interview Key Material Witnesses – There were several material witnesses that the police did not interview because they were embroiled in justifying suicide rather than objectively investigating the Kathy Morris death. In fact, not one but, two vehicles similar to vehicles allegedly in the possession of those key material witnesses, who had strong connections with Kathy’s estranged husband, were caught on surveillance cameras near or next to Kathy’s car. Yet, this was not investigated.
- Devaluation of Black Lives – The apparent devaluation of the lives of Black victims by law enforcement. It appears that local law enforcement placed more value on white lives – thereby, conducting more complete investigations of white victims leaving Black families further traumatized. If this is what is happening on the local level, it leaves Black families in the untenable position of having to fight against the government that is supposed to be there to protect all of its citizenry. It also means that these families have to scramble and pull together their often limited financial resources to fight for the truth regarding how their loved one died. This sacrifice may undoubtedly impact the quality of the lives of the surviving family members.
As mentioned earlier, the Morris family won on appeal (See, https://www.capitalgazette.com/news/ac-cn-morris-death-overturned-20210312-20210312-xrqxiyu6rveyzfkbuk4tnelopu-story.html) and the judge threw out the suicide ruling. However, the state has appealed that decision. One would hope that, in light of the Attorney General’s decision to re-evaluate in-custody autopsies performed during Dr. Fowler’s tenure with the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office, the Attorney General will also give families a means to request re-evaluation of their loved ones autopsies. The need for this is very compelling in the cases of Anton Black, Kathy Morris and Tyrone West. This would be the most humane approach as well as, arguably, the most cost effective option as more families are challenging the medical examiner reports through litigation costing the government thousands and thousands of dollars to defend, not to mention the financial burdens that this forces families to take on to learn the truth about how their loved one died. For a number of families the answer may be simply that their loved ones were victims of an inept medical examiner’s office.
So to answer the question posed at the beginning, the connection between Japan’s black widow, George Floyd’s murder, the former Maryland Medical Examiner, David Fowler, and a young woman named Kathrine Morris found dead in her car at the Maryland, Arundel Mills Mall in 2012 – is…. “Bigots with Badges.” Law enforcement officers who are biased and let their bias lead their investigations rather than fairly and objectively ferreting out the truth. If there were no bigots with badges, let’s say in the Morris case, for example, and if all those involved valued the life of a young Black woman the same way that they might value the life of a young white woman, then Kathy’s death being reduced to a suicide on the day her body was found and without a full autopsy or proper police investigation might never have happened. Had Kathy and her family been given the respect of equal treatment and full investigation, her family might have had more confidence in the outcome believing that law enforcement had done their best to uncover anything that was suspicious and out of place but that’s not what happened. Kathy Morris’ life was not valued as evidenced by the rush to judgement of suicide. The medical examiner’s office did not dive deeply into the cause of death, instead it rubber stamped what they had been told by the police, who did not fully investigate Kathy’s death creating a vicious circle. Further, what the medical examiner did do is write an autopsy report replete with inaccurate conclusions under the inept leadership of – wait for it… Dr. David Fowler.
The same correlations can be made in the George Floyd case. Had they treated Floyd humanely when he complained of claustrophobia, instead of trying to force his large body into the small back seat of a police car for allegedly passing counterfeit money, Floyd might be alive today. Any Black person can give examples of how whites are treated in police custody as opposed to Blacks. The typical example is Dylann Roof getting a hamburger after slaughtering a group of Blacks at church (See, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article25394389.html ). That is certainly not how law enforcement on balance treats Blacks who are suspected of murder!
According to Matthew Fogg, who is the president of Congress Against Racism & Corruption in Law Enforcement (CARCLE), “Bigots with Badges” is a phrase that was echoed from New York Post article years ago when he began to fight his employment discrimination case against the US. Marshals. The article ran a “Special Report: The blatant racism inside U.S. Marshals Service” (See, https://bigotswithbadges.com.) As a seasoned US Marshal, who won a landmark four (4) million dollar verdict against the US Marshal Service, Fogg has opined that if members of law enforcement would treat their fellow officers with such racist disdain, how do you expect that they will treat the average Black citizen who may cross their path. Bigotry and racism is embedded in our culture and creates the gnarly backbone of law enforcement. Fogg has been fighting this battle for over two decades.
Fogg is a lead class agent in a current lawsuit against the US Marshall service. This hopefully gives families like the Morris family hope that as they work on cleaning up the mess made by bigots with badges on the outside, there is someone on the inside who is lodging a frontal attack to eradicate racism in law enforcement once and for all. This is true regardless of which branch of law enforcement one is referring to because every attack against bigotry and racism in law enforcement will eventually help to breakdown centuries of bias and will positively impact the law enforcement systems across the board as well as related systems such as medical examiners and coroners offices.
Thank you to the families who fight on the behalf of their loved ones to seek the truth because “but for God, there go I.” Also, thank you to members of law enforcement, like retired US Marshal Matthew Fogg, who put their lives on the line to stop discrimination in law enforcement on all fronts by attacking structural racism from within to breakdown deeply embedded barriers to justice in America for people of color (See, https://fromthegman.net/2021/01/07/former-u-s-marshal-members-of-congress-were-allowed-to-enter-the-mother-of-all-crime-scenes/ ). As an advocate, Fogg supports an end to qualified immunity in the case of law enforcement, which when applicable prevents police being sued in civil court (See, https://www.davisvanguard.org/2021/04/letter-54-law-enforcement-professionals-sign-letter-urging-congress-to-end-qualified-immunity/ ).
As most people know, change comes from pressure. That is how diamonds are made from carbon atoms. In government, pressure comes from constituents. As constituents, please contact county and state governments to encourage them to start a fund to reimburse families for expenses exhausted if they have obtained proof of inept handling of their loved one’s case such as contradictory medical opinions and other reports that demonstrate the errors made by the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office and, the respective, police departments. This fund should include an administrative process to apply for reimbursement outside of the court system to ensure that the families do not incur any additional legal expenses. Maybe one day, the government will remember that it is here to serve and protect its citizens. Alternatively, government is not here to create a living hell for families who only seek the truth about how their loved one died. Maybe one day, the acknowledgment of inalienable human rights will be sacred on every level of government, inc