On Tuesday, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter for pinning George Floyd to the ground with his knee until he stopped breathing. During the trial, prosecutors put Floyd’s girlfriend and brother on the witness stand, in an effort to humanise him for the jury
Prosecutors used a legal doctrine called spark of life to call Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, and brother Philonise Floyd, to testify about his life. But Ross’ testimony also gave the defense an opportunity to delve into Floyd’s drug use. They attempted to portray Floyd’s complicated life from his childhood in Houstons Third Ward where he came to be seen as a mentor to his struggle with drug addiction in Minneapolis.
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Meanwhile, when Philonise was called to the witness stand earlier this month, he described his brother’s upbringing in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and the time he spent at the Cuney Homes public housing project in Houston. Calling his brother a “big momma’s boy”, he also shared details about Floyd’s relationship with his mother, who died in 2018.
But the spark of life doctrine which is rare outside Minnesota is controversial among defense attorneys and could complicate the trial. Here’s how legal experts see that playing out.
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 officers 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. The prosecution has some leeway to show that spark and present the victim as a human being as long as it is not an attempt to invoke any undue sympathy or inflame the jury’s passions.
What did the jury learn?
Ross told jurors that she and Floyd were both drug addicts stemming from their struggles with chronic pain. She said they tried really hard to break that addiction many times.
Were learning that Floyd is not a perfect person as none of us are said David Schultz a law professor at the University of Minnesota.
After watching the first days of testimony Schultz said it was clear prosecutors were pulling at the emotional strings of the jury to make a case for convicting Derek Chauvin of the most severe charges.
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 _ seconddegree murder _ against the former officer carries up to 40 years in prison
What the spark of life is bringing in is painting a picture of perhaps Chauvin was indifferent to the problems to the health and the life and safety of George Floyd Schultz said.
Did it backfire?
When Chauvins defense attorney Eric Nelson crossexamined Ross he questioned her on Floyd’s drug use driving hard for her to talk about how Floyd was hospitalized in March 2020 and how she had speculated that it was because he had used heroin Ross drove Floyd to the emergency room because he was suffering from extreme stomach pain and she later learned he had overdosed.
It was the defenses best day in terms of testimony said F Clayton Tyler a prominent local defense attorney. The fact that he overdosed I thought that was huge.
Legal experts expect Floyd’s cause of death to be key at trial. The defense has argued 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.
Attorneys for both sides will bring expert witnesses to provide competing testimony about what killed Floyd Jurors will have to decide.
Its an excellent tactic for the state to try to get jurors to feel sorry for a person because hes an addict but in this case being an addict means hes violating the law said Joe Friedberg a defense attorney.
Some legal experts have said if prosecutors go too far to invoke undue sympathy Chauvins defense could have grounds for an appeal But Friedberg doubted that would happen saying Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill would halt testimony if it goes too far.
Tyler also reasoned that the defense was bound to highlight Floyd’s drug addiction at some point anyway so by using spark of life prosecutors can address it headon while showing who he was as an individual.