By STEVE KARNOWSKI, AMY FORLITI and TAMMY WEBBER Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — George Floyd’s girlfriend cried on the witness stand Thursday as she told the story of how they first met in 2017 at a Salvation Army shelter where Floyd was a security guard with “this great Southern voice, raspy.” She also recounted how they both struggled with opioid addiction.
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“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.
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 last May. The most serious charge against the now-fired white officer carries up to 40 years in prison.
The defense has argued that Chauvin did what he was trained to do and that Floyd’s death was caused instead by his illegal drug use, underlying health conditions and the adrenaline flowing through his body. An autopsy found fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system.
Under cross-examination by Chauvin attorney Eric Nelson, Ross said 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 this 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.”
In her testimony, Ross described how both she and Floyd struggled with their 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.
”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 later learned he 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 during that time.
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.
Ross began her testimony by telling how the two of them met.
“May I tell the story?” she asked. “It’s one of my favorite stories to tell.”
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Ross said she had gone to the shelter because her sons’ father was staying there. 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 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.”
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.
Floyd’s death, along with the harrowing bystander video of him gasping for breath as onlookers yelled at Chauvin to get off him, triggered sometimes violent protests around the world and demands that the U.S. confront racism and police brutality.
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 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!” The footage also showed Floyd being loaded into an ambulance.
When Floyd was finally taken away, a bystander objected to what Chauvin had done.
“That’s one person’s opinion,” Chauvin could be heard responding. “We gotta control this guy ’cause he’s a sizable guy… and it looks like he’s probably on something.”
Floyd was 6-foot-4 and 223 pounds, according to the autopsy. Chauvin’s lawyer said the officer is 5-foot-9 and 140 pounds.
Webber reported from Fenton, Michigan.