Medical examiner who reviewed autopsy testifies Tyler Skaggs died of OD caused by fentanyl as defense questions level at time of death

FORT WORTH, Texas -- A key question in determining whether former Los Angeles Angels communications director Eric Kay is responsible for the drug-related death of Tyler Skaggs is determining exactly what killed him.

And if the jury ended Week 1 of the U.S. v. Eric Kay confused, it wouldn't be a surprise. The case against Kay is built on the government's contention that he gave Skaggs pills laced with fentanyl, and that the fentanyl directly caused Skaggs' death.

The official ruling by the medical examiner in 2019, however, was that Skaggs did have fentanyl, oxycodone and alcohol in his system, but that he died by asphyxiation after vomiting. That medical examiner, Dr. Marc Krouse, who lost his job last year after several mistakes were found in unrelated cases, testified Thursday that he stood by his ruling that Skaggs' death was accidental. He said the fentanyl increased the probability of Skaggs' death, though he couldn't say for certain it caused it.

On Friday, however, the man who replaced Krouse as deputy chief of the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's office, Dr. Richard Fries, testified that Skaggs died of an overdose caused by the fentanyl.

Prosecutors contend that "but for" the fentanyl, Skaggs would have lived.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Errin Martin asked Fries, "What was the 'but for' in this case?"

Fries responded, "In this case I would consider it the fentanyl."

Fries, who did not conduct the autopsy but reviewed Krouse's autopsy and the toxicology report, said his conclusion was based in part on the amount of the highly toxic drug found in Skaggs' body. During cross-examination, however, defense attorney Michael Molfetta questioned Fries about studies that suggested fentanyl levels can rise after someone dies, as the body absorbs more of it.

When Molfetta asked Fries what the level was at the time of Skaggs' death, Fries said it was impossible to know exactly, that it could have been the same or higher.

In a made-for-TV moment, Molfetta asked Fries for at least the third time, "Isn't it possible the level was lower?" Fries stared back for more than five seconds before saying, "It's possible."

Molfetta concluded his questioning by asking, "In rooms like this, it's not about maybes, it's yes or no. Do you agree that it's about proof beyond a reasonable doubt?"

Fries answered, "That's my understanding."

Another exchange also had mixed results for the government. Prosecutors called FBI Special Agent Mark Sedwick to testify about his analysis of cellphone records to determine where Kay was when he had numerous conversations with a person identified by both sides as a drug dealer. That phone is registered to an "Ashley Smith," although both sides said that's an alias for a drug dealer. The government showed numerous calls and texts between Kay and "Ashley Smith" in the days leading up to Skaggs' death, as prosecutors have said Kay got drugs and then gave them to Skaggs in Texas. But on cross-examination, Sedwick said there was only one time when he could identify the phones from Kay and "Smith" as being in the same area, and that was June 28, two days before the team's trip to Texas.

The trial resumes Monday, with several of Skaggs' former Angels teammates expected to testify about their own drug use.

There was one moment of levity Friday when Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Beran handed a witness a protective glove to handle a piece of evidence, and the witness was unable to put it on.

"It doesn't fit," he said.

Judge Terry R. Means, whose dry Texas quips have provided comic relief all week, fired back, "Guess we have to acquit."