By STEVE KARNOWSKI, AMY FORLITI and TAMMY WEBBER Associated Press
George Floyd’s girlfriend tearfully told a jury Thursday the story of how they met — at a Salvation Army shelter where he was security guard with “this great, deep Southern voice, raspy” — and how they both struggled mightily with an addiction to opioids.
“Both Floyd and I, our story, it’s a classic story of how many people get addicted to opioids. We both suffered from chronic pain. Mine was in my neck and his was in his back,” 45-year-old Courteney Ross said on Day Four of former Officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial.
She said they “tried really hard to break that addiction many times.”
Prosecutors put Ross on the stand as part of an effort to humanize Floyd in front of the jury and portray him as more than a crime statistic, and also apparently explain his drug use to the jurors and perhaps get them to empathize with what he went through.
The defense has argued that Chauvin did what he was trained to do and that Floyd’s death last May was caused by his illegal drug use, underlying health conditions and the adrenaline flowing through his body. An autopsy found fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system.
Ross’s testimony could help prosecutors blunt the argument that drugs killed Floyd. Medical experts have said that while the level of fentanyl in his system could be fatal to some, people who use the drug regularly can develop a tolerance to it.
Chauvin attorney Eric Nelson pressed Ross on cross-examination on Floyd’s drug use, asking questions aimed at showing the jury that it was dangerous.
Under questioning from Nelson, Ross also disclosed that Floyd’s pet name for her in his phone was “Mama” — testimony that called into question the widely reported account that Floyd was crying out for his mother as he lay pinned to the pavement.
In some of the video, Floyd can be heard calling out, “Mama!” repeatedly and saying, “Mama, I love you! … Tell my kids I love them.”
Chauvin, 45, is charged with murder and manslaughter, accused of killing Floyd by kneeling on the 46-year-old Black man’s neck for 9 minutes, 29 seconds, as he lay face-down in handcuffs, a case that triggered scattered violence around the U.S. and widespread soul-searching over racism and police brutality. The most serious charge against the now-fired white officer carries up to 40 years in prison.
In her testimony, Ross described how both she and Floyd struggled with addiction to painkillers throughout their relationship. She said they both had prescriptions, and when those ran out, they took the prescriptions of others and also used illegal drugs.
A ‘lifelong struggle’
”Addiction, in my opinion, is a lifelong struggle … It’s not something that just kind of comes and goes. It’s something I’ll deal with forever,” she said.
In March 2020, Ross drove Floyd to the emergency room because he was in extreme stomach pain, and she learned he had overdosed. In the months that followed, Ross said, she and Floyd spent a lot of time together during the coronavirus quarantine, and Floyd was clean.
But she suspected he began using again about two weeks before his death because his behavior changed: She said there would be times when he would be up and bouncing around, and other times when he would be unintelligible.
Also Thursday, a paramedic who arrived on the scene testified that the first call was a Code 2, for someone with a mouth injury, but it was upgraded a minute and a half later to Code 3 -– a life-threatening incident that led them to turn on the lights and siren.
Seth Bravinder said he saw no signs that Floyd was breathing or moving, and it appeared he was in cardiac arrest. Bravinder said they loaded Floyd into the ambulance so he could get care “in an optimum environment,” but also so paramedics could get away from the scene.
“There was also a crowd of people that appeared very upset on the sidewalk. There was some yelling and stuff,” Bravinder said. “In my mind at least, we wanted to get away from that.”
Chauvin’s lawyer has argued that the police on the scene were distracted by what they perceived as a growing and increasingly hostile crowd. Video showed somewhere around 15 onlookers close to where Floyd lay on the pavement.
Bravinder said after he drove the ambulance three blocks and jumped in back to help his partner, a monitor showed that Floyd had flatlined — his heart had stopped. He said they were never able to restore a pulse.
Ross began her testimony by telling how she and Floyd first met in 2017 at a Salvation Army shelter where Floyd was a security guard. She had gone there because her sons’ father was staying there.
“May I tell the story?” she asked. “It’s one of my favorite stories to tell.”
She said she became upset because the father was not coming to the lobby to discuss their son’s birthday. Floyd came over to check on her.
“Floyd has this great, deep Southern voice, raspy. He was like, `Sis, you OK, sis?’” Ross recalled. “I was tired. We’ve been through so much, my sons and I, and (for) this kind person just to come up and say, ‘Can I pray with you?’ … it was so sweet. At the time, I had lost a lot of faith in God.”
A rare kind of testimony allowed
Minnesota is a rarity in explicitly permitting such “spark of life” testimony about a crime victim ahead of a verdict. Defense attorneys often complain that such testimony allows prosecutors to play on jurors’ emotions.
Thursday’s testimony came a day after prosecutors played extensive video footage that documented the chain of events that culminated in Floyd’s death, beginning with his alleged use of a counterfeit $20 bill at a neighborhood market to pay for a pack of cigarettes.
Bystander and police bodycam video showed officers pulling the 6-foot-4, 223-pounds Floyd from his SUV at gunpoint, then struggling to put him in the back of the squad car as a panicky-sounding Floyd writhed and cried, “I’m claustrophobic!” It was then that they put him on the ground.