Prosecutors trying a white former Minneapolis police officer in George Floyd’s death put one of Floyd’s brothers on the witness stand Monday in a further effort to humanize him for the jury and counter the defence narrative that Floyd was at least partially responsible for his own death due to his use of illegal drugs.
Philonise Floyd, who has frequently occupied the Floyd family’s sole seat in the socially distanced courtroom, was allowed to testify under a legal doctrine called “spark of life.” He told the jury about how they grew up poor in Houston’s Third Ward, his brother’s passion for sports, his marginal cooking skills and how he was devastated by his mother’s death.
The defence didn’t use Philonise Floyd’s appearance to discuss George Floyd’s drug use. That contrasted with earlier spark of life testimony from George Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, who told the jury how they both struggled with addiction to opioids.
Derek Chauvin, 45, is charged with murder and manslaughter. Prosecutors say he knelt on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes, 29 seconds, pinning the handcuffed man to the ground. The most serious charge — second-degree murder — carries up to 40 years in prison.
What is the ‘spark of life’ doctrine?
The doctrine emerged in 1985 when a defendant accused of killing a police officer argued to the Minnesota Supreme Court that the prosecutor prejudiced the jury with a speech about the officer’s childhood, his parents and his marriage. The prosecutor became so emotional the trial court had to take a recess.
The court ruled that prosecutors can present evidence that a murder victim was “not just bones and sinews covered with flesh, but was imbued with the spark of life.”
“It remains very odd in the law — I don’t think any other state would allow this kind of thing,” said Ted Sampell-Jones, a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law. “Criminal lawyers around the country are really quite astounded that this sort of testimony is allowed in Minnesota. But it is allowed under current law, and the prosecution is using that to its advantage.”
What did the jury learn from Philonise Floyd?
Philonise Floyd said his brother was a leader in the family and in their neighbourhood. His pride was evident when the prosecution showed juror a photo of his brother in uniform for the South Florida College basketball team.
“He used to make the best banana mayonnaise sandwiches,” he recalled, explaining: “George couldn’t cook. He couldn’t boil water.”
Jurors were riveted and focused on Philonise Floyd as he talked about his brother. At least one juror appeared charmed and nodded as he described how his older brother used to constantly measure himself because he wanted to be taller.
But Philonise Floyd became tearful as he told the jury about his brother’s deep pain over his mother’s death in 2018. “He loved her so dearly,” he recalled, but his brother was not able to get back to Houston before she died.
“It hurt him a lot,” he said. “And when we went to the funeral, it’s just, George just sat there at the casket, over and over again. He would just say, `Mama, Mama,’ over and over again. And I didn’t know what to tell him because I was in pain, too. We all were hurtin’ and he was just kissing her and just kissing her. He didn’t want to leave the casket.”
But he smiled when he was shown a picture of George Floyd with his daughter, who he said is now 7.
What did the jury learn from Ross?
Ross told jurors earlier how she and George Floyd both struggled with opioid addiction throughout their relationship, which began in 2017. “We both suffered from chronic pain. Mine was in my neck and his was in his back.” She said they “tried really hard to break that addiction many times.”
When Chauvin’s defence attorney Eric Nelson cross-examined Ross, he pushed her hard on Floyd’s drug use, including how he was hospitalized in 2020 for what she believed was a heroin overdose. All of that allowed Nelson to repeatedly remind the jury that Floyd was a drug user.
Floyd’s cause of death has been a key issue. The defence has argued that Floyd’s death was caused by his drug use, underlying health conditions and the adrenaline flowing through his body. An autopsy found fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system, though a series of prosecution experts testified that drugs did not kill Floyd.
Did it backfire?
Not on Monday. Prosecutor Steve Schleicher did not ask Philonise Floyd about what he knew, if anything, about his brother’s drug use, and Nelson opted not to cross-examine him at all, so the brother spent only about 15 minutes on the witness stand.
Sampsell-Jones said the prosecution was careful to avoid eliciting any testimony that would have opened the door to evidence about George Floyd’s criminal record, which the judge has kept out of the trial.
“On balance, it helps the prosecution — it humanizes Floyd and plays on the jury’s sympathies,” Sampsell-Jones said. “It is a good way for the prosecution to close its case.”
Mary Moriarty, a former chief public defender for Hennepin County, said spark of life testimony “can backfire if the jury believes that the state is trying to manipulate their emotions. In this case, I don’t think it will.”
Moriarty also said that the jury at this point knows more about George Floyd than it ever would have learned about most defendants.