(MINNEAPOLIS) — The jury has heard extensively about George Floyd’s drug addiction, but until Monday little had been shared to humanize the man prosecutors say died in the most inhumane way.
Prosecutors winding down their murder case against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, called Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, to the witness stand to provide what is known in Minnesota as “spark of life doctrine” testimony.
Stemming from a 1985 state Supreme Court case, Minnesota is rare in permitting such personal and often emotional testimony from loved ones of an alleged crime victim in advance of a verdict. In most states, such testimony is reserved for victim impact statements during sentencing if there is a conviction.
Prior to the start of the trial, prosecutor Matthew Frank told Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill that he planned to invoke the doctrine during the trial, allowing the prosecution to call witnesses to testify about Floyd as a brother, son, father and friend.
“This puts some personal nature back into the case for somebody who’s treated so impersonally in an unfortunately biased system,” Frank told Cahill.
Philonise Floyd attempted to do just that, describing his brother’s upbringing in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and at the Cuney Homes public housing project in Houston. He described his brother’s fondness for Nintendo video games, his prowess in playing basketball and football in high school and college, and his love for their late mother, Larcenia Floyd.
He described his brother as a “big momma’s boy,” who had a special relationship with their mother, who died in 2018.
“Being around him, he showed us like how to treat our mom and how to respect our mom,” Philonise Floyd testified.
During one point in his testimony, Philonise Floyd was shown a photo of his brother as a child hugging their smiling mother while lying in her lap. He began to cry and paused his testimony to wipe his eyes with a tissue and compose himself. He then explained why the month of May has become so bittersweet for him.
“On May 24, I got married and my brother was killed on May 25, and my mom died on May 30. So it’s like a bittersweet month because I’m supposed to be happy when that month comes,” Philonise Floyd said, his voice cracking with emotion.
He said as a child, he looked up to his older brother, George, who he referred by his middle name, Perry. He said his brother was a standout athlete at Jack Yates High School in Houston, where he played basketball and football, and taught him how to play the sports.
He said his brother would always make sure he was dressed and ready for school and had lunch to take with him, adding that George Floyd often made banana mayonnaise sandwiches “because he couldn’t cook.”
“He just was a person everybody loved in the community. He just knew how to make people feel better,” Philonise Floyd, a 39-year-old truck driver, testified.
He said that when their mother died in May 2018, George Floyd was emotionally crushed that he was in Minnesota and not at her side in Houston.
“So, that right there it hurt him a lot. When we went to the funeral, George just sat there at the casket … and he would just say ‘momma, momma’ over and over again,” he said, recalling the same cries his brother repeated as he was dying under the weight of Chauvin’s knee on his neck.
“I didn’t know what to tell him because I was in pain, too,” he said. “We all were hurting and he was just kissing her and kissing her. He did not want to leave the casket.”
Prior to Philonise Floyd testimony, Lee Merritt, an attorney for the Floyd family, told ABC News that Floyd’s loved ones were looking forward to this portion of the trial. He said they wanted to add context to the man Chauvin’s defense attorney Eric Nelson has repeatedly maligned.
Nelson has argued and questioned witnesses on whether Floyd’s drug addiction and heart diseases more likely caused his death than the actions of Chauvin and three other officers involved in his fatal May 25, 2020, arrest.
“As you can imagine no one in the country is more invested in the outcome of this case than the family,” Merritt told ABC News.
The “spark of life” testimony will followed a week in which the Floyd family has had to endure the most graphic testimony yet of medical experts offering a second-by-second description of Floyd’s death and how his body was dissected during an autopsy.
“George Floyd has become a hashtag. He’s become a rallying cry, but the family wants the jury to know that he was a person, that his life had value, that if he wasn’t assaulted in the way he was, that he could have led a productive life, that family members relied on him,” Merritt said. “How that evidence is going to come in is going to be very important to this family.”
The “spark of life” doctrine emerged from a 1985 case in which a defendant charged with killing a police officer argued to the Minnesota Supreme Court that the prosecutor prejudiced the jury with a speech about the officer’s marriage and childhood upbringing that was so emotional the judge had to order a recess.
The state Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors could present evidence that a murder victim was “not just bones and sinews covered with flesh, but was imbued with the spark of life.”
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