In a case that drew national attention and comparisons to the murder of George Floyd an autopsy report released Friday for a California man who died in April after being restrained by police identifies his manner of death a homicide but cites methamphetamine toxicity as the leading cause.
Attorneys for his family dispute the cause.
Mario Gonzalez, 26, died after Alameda police officers restrained him on his stomach for five minutes in a case that had echoes of the murder of George Floyd. Local residents called 911 on Gonzalez after he seemed dazed and intoxicated, but not threatening or violent, in a public park.
The autopsy by the Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau rules Gonzalez’s death a homicide but says the main cause was “toxic effects of methamphetamine.”
Chief forensic pathologist, Vivian Snyder, cites other significant contributing factors to Gonzalez’s death, including the physiologic stress of the restraint by police during the incident as well as alcoholism and morbid obesity.
Civil Rights attorney Julia Sherwin, who is representing the family, says her office will continue to press their case in court that it was the officers’ prone weight restraint, not meth, that killed Gonzalez.
“Mario would not have died were it not for being restrained in a prone position, with multiple officers on his back, for over five minutes,” Sherwin tells NPR.
According to the toxicology report released, Gonzalez had .9 milligrams of meth per liter in his system. Sherwin argues that is “a pretty low level of methamphetamine” that’s comparable to or even lower than concentrations of the drug often seen in ‘recreational’ use of the drug.
“We often see in these cases of mechanical asphyxia or restraint asphyxia the pathologist attributing the death to methamphetamine,” Sherwin says, adding, “It’s not uncommon for a forensic pathologist to not have a very strong handle on the toxicology or the epidemiology of mass intoxication.”
County officials dispute that characterization. The report went through “multiple levels of scrutiny and peer-review including a committee and we absolutely stand by that work,” Alameda County Sheriff public information officer Lt. Ray Kelly says of the coroner’s report. In Alameda County, the sheriff also oversees the coroner’s office.
Sherwin is preparing a federal civil rights lawsuit. She’s says she’s hopeful the Alameda County District Attorney’s office “will do their job and prosecute the officers for the homicide that they committed, to hold those officers accountable in criminal court in Alameda County. And Mario’s 5-year-old son, also named Mario, will hold them accountable in civil court in a federal civil rights lawsuit.”
A spokeswoman for the Alameda County DA’s office declined to comment, citing its ongoing investigation of the case.