Taking the stand Thursday morning, Courteney Ross told jurors about her life with on-again, off-again boyfriend George Floyd and the couple’s fight with opioid addiction.
MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — The fourth day of testimony in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial for the death of George Floyd turned away from the scene of Floyd’s deadly arrest to his life, with Floyd’s on-and-off girlfriend testifying about their relationship and their struggles with opioid addiction.
Chauvin’s attorney Eric Nelson has maintained throughout the trial that Floyd’s death was caused by his drug use. So have attorneys for the three officers who face aiding-and-abetting charges for their role in the Memorial Day 2020 arrest, which sparked protests and riots around the nation.
Courteney Ross, 45, said that in her three-year relationship with Floyd, he’d been on and off of opioids. He’d gotten addicted, she said, after receiving a prescription for neck, shoulder and back pain.
Ross told the story of how she met Floyd in the lobby of a Salvation Army shelter, where he worked as a security guard.
“I was tired, and had just cleaned up and closed up the shop, and I went to go visit my son’s father,” she said. She wanted to talk about her son’s upcoming birthday, but the father didn’t come down to meet her. “I was pretty upset, and I started kinda fussin’, in the corner of the lobby. And at one point, Floyd came up to me. Floyd has this great, deep, southern voice. Raspy. And he’s like, ‘sis, you OK sis?’ And I wasn’t OK.”
“He said, ‘can I pray with you?’” she added “I was so tired. We’d been through so much, my sons and I. And this kind person, just to come up to me and say ‘can I pray with you,’ when I felt alone in this lobby– it was so sweet at the time. I had lost a lot of faith in God.”
Ross, like many who knew him, called him by his last name.
“That was just Floyd,” she said. “Afterwards, he had asked me who my son’s father was, and I said, we co-parent, and we’re not in a relationship, and that’s when I want to say his voice dropped like two levels,” she continued, smiling a bit.
She said their relationship started shortly afterward. Floyd loved eating out, going to parks and the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and exploring the city. He lived near Bde Maka Ska, a popular lake for swimming, and had come from Houston not long before.
“Everything was new to him. He made it seem like I was new to my own city,” Ross said.
The pair’s relationship, she said, had highs and lows, and at some points they would take breaks. They’d also each go through periods of sobriety and opioid use, sometimes together, sometimes not.
“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. We both have prescriptions. But, um, after prescriptions that were filled– we got addicted, and tried, really hard, to break that addiction many times,” she said.
“Addiction, in my opinion, is a lifelong struggle,” she added. “It’s something that we dealt with every day. It’s not something that just kind of comes and goes.”
In the days after Floyd’s mother died, she said, his demeanor changed. “He seemed kind of like a shell of himself. Like he was broken– he seemed so sad. He didn’t have the same kind of bounce that he had. He was devastated. He loves his mom, so much. And I knew that. He talked about her all the time.”
He called his mother “mama,” Ross said — a name that he also used for her. It’s unclear which of the two women Floyd was calling for in his last moments, if not both. “It was different, the way he said it,” she said.
Nelson pounced on that in cross-examination, along with the couple’s history of drug use. When they couldn’t buy opioids like Oxycontin or Oxycodone from someone with a prescription, Ross said, they sometimes turned to black-market sources. Morries Hall and Shawanda Hill, who were with Floyd on the day of his death, had sold him drugs in the past.
Hall filed a motion Wednesday to quash a subpoena for his testimony, notifying the court that he would invoke the Fifth Amendment if asked to testify. Christopher Martin, a Cup Foods employee, testified on Wednesday that Hall tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill in the store before police arrived.
Nelson questioned Ross extensively on some pills she told FBI and Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agents she believed Floyd had bought from Hall. Sometime in March, she said, Floyd had brought her pills that were different from the usual opioids she used. “I was up all night,” she said, and kind of “jittery.”
While Nelson never explicitly drew the connection, toxicology reports have revealed that Floyd had fentanyl, a powerful opiate, and methamphetamine in his system when he died. Nelson also asked about a period in which Floyd was hospitalized early in May for what Ross said she later learned was an overdose.
Ross left the stand and the court took a break before turning to Seth Bravinder, one of the two paramedics who took Floyd away from 38th Street and Chicago Avenue on May 25.
Bravinder spent his time on the stand walking step by step through a call he and partner Derek Smith received to 38th and Chicago that evening. They’d initially been dispatched on a low-urgency “code 2” call for a bleeding mouth, Bravinder said, but it was upgraded to a full lights-and-sirens “code 3” call about a minute later.
Upon arrival, he said, he parked the ambulance and waited for Smith to check Floyd’s pulse and pupils. Chauvin was still on Floyd’s neck, he testified.
Smith, affable but blunt, was similarly quizzed on the events. His immediate assessment of the scene was grim, he said.
“There was elevated tones used. It didn’t feel like a welcoming environment,” he said. Upon checking Floyd’s pulse, he said, he suspected the worst. “In a living person, there should be a pulse there. I did not feel one, I suspected this person to be dead, in lay terms,” he said, a little tersely.
In a hurry, he pushed an officer aside. “I wanted to get my patient to my rig as quickly as possible…. He was standing in between the patient and the stretcher, he needed to be eliminated from the situation,” Smith said. It was unclear whether the officer he pushed was Chauvin or Lane.
Throughout his testimony, Smith appeared irritated with the police response, at one point saying that Floyd “was a human being, and I was trying to give him a second chance at life.” Asked about whether the police on scene could have done anything to help, he said there was “no reason” police could not have started chest compressions before paramedics arrived.
The ambulance, he said, traveled to the hospital after firefighters arrived and Smith felt he was able to effectively manage the scene.
That decision to leave the scene also became a major focus of cross-examination. Nelson has used cross-examination for several of the state’s witnesses to paint an image of an unruly, angry crowd disrupting Chauvin’s work and potentially endangering him.
Bravinder acknowledged that the crowd was one factor in the paramedics’ decision to drive Floyd a few blocks away, but not the only one.
“That was a part of it, yes,” he said. Other factors included equipment and backup.
“All of our equipment at that point was in the truck for resuscitating the patient,” he added. “We also didn’t have Minneapolis Fire there yet, and they work with us on critical patients.”
Fire Captain Jeremy Norton said that process was slowed down by a lack of information on Floyd’s status. Norton and his crew were called to 38th and Chicago, he said, only to find no patient and no ambulance. He walked into Cup Foods in search of a patient, and an officer inside the store — likely Kueng — told him the medics had already left. He then spoke with Genevieve Hansen, an off-duty firefighter who witnessed the event. She was visibly distressed, he said, but at the time he didn’t understand why.
Hansen testified on Tuesday and Wednesday. After Floyd reached Hennepin County Medical Center and he understood the gravity of the situation, Norton said, he dispatched firefighters to check on her. He also reported the incident to his superiors at the Fire Department.
After dosing Floyd with epinephrine and sodium bicarbonate, paramedics took him to HCMC, the city’s largest hospital. As far as Bravinder knew, he said, Floyd’s pulse never returned during that time.
Floyd was eventually pronounced dead at that hospital at 9:25 p.m., 58 minutes after Bravinder and Smith arrived on the scene.
Bravinder’s testimony concluded with a few questions from each side about paramedics’ handling of potentially dangerous situations and drug overdoses. Nelson alluded to Hennepin EMS’s controversial use of ketamine to subdue some patients, and asked if drug overdose patients sometimes became violent after resuscitation. Bravinder confirmed both.
Assistant Attorney General Erin Eldridge asked about what Bravinder’s partner saw in Floyd’s pupils. Opioid overdoses, Bravinder confirmed, usually cause pupils to severely contract. Nelson was quick to point out that methamphetamine often dilates them. Bravinder said he’d never seen Floyd’s pupils, and that while his partner had likely reported their size to him, he didn’t remember what the result was. Smith didn’t testify on the matter.
Thursday’s final witness was retired police Sergeant David Ploeger, who was on “mid-watch” duty that evening for the Third Precinct. Ploeger was questioned heavily on the MPD’s use-of-force rules, particularly what situations required officers to call a sergeant. Use of the maximal-restraint technique, which the officers attempted to employ with Floyd, and applying force to Floyd’s neck both qualified.
After a lengthy sidebar and some discussion of admissibility, prosecutor Steve Schleicher asked Ploeger when he thought the use of force should have been stopped. “When he stopped offering up any resistance,” Ploeger replied.
Ploeger also said Chauvin had not mentioned placing his knee on Floyd’s neck until they were at the hospital and had already heard the news that Floyd had been pronounced dead.
Nelson’s efforts to portray the crowd as a cause for the officers to hold position on Floyd took a sharp turn into hypotheticals while questioning Ploeger.
“If you were in a gun battle, and someone was shooting at you, and someone had went into cardiac arrest– would you stop what you were doing to mitigate the threat, or immediately stop to perform CPR?” the defense attorney asked.
Ploeger responded that he wouldn’t. Schleicher took the opportunity on redirect to clarify that the situation was different. “You’ve reviewed the body-worn cameras, correct?” the prosecutor asked.
“Yes, I’ve reviewed the body-worn camera footage,” Ploeger responded.
“You didn’t see a gun battle?”