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When George Floyd’s younger brother Philonise took the stand in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial Monday, he didn’t talk much about what happened when his sibling died under the weight of cops last May.
Instead, he testified that George used to make him mayonnaise and banana sandwiches when they were kids and that they played Nintendo together.
And that was the point.
Philonise was acting as a “spark of life” witness for the prosecution—a person called to the stand with the sole purpose of providing the jury with more context of who a victim was before their death. And they’re unique to Minnesota: Most states don’t allow these types of witnesses until the sentencing phase.
Philonise’s brief but emotional testimony at the Hennepin County Courthouse gave jurors the most vulnerable look at Floyd, who was arrested for allegedly using counterfeit money at a convenience store on the southside of Minneapolis. Throughout his testimony, prosecutors shared several photos of the 46-year-old Black man from over the years: George studying in class, George standing with his high school football teammates, even one of him napping in his late mother’s arms.
“He loved his mom,” Philonise said, smiling as he recalled. “It was so unique how they were with each other.”
Philonise told stories of him and his brothers growing up in poverty at the Cuney Homes housing project in Houston. He talked about tuning in to basketball games with George just to watch their hero Michael Jordan play and shared tender memories of his eldest brother looking out for his younger siblings.
“He would always make sure that we had our clothes for school, he made sure that we all were going to make it to school on time,” he said of his late brother.
“He used to make the best banana mayonnaise sandwiches, and he used to make syrup sandwiches,” he said later.
He also told the jury that the passing of their mother took a tremendous toll on him.
“He was talking to her over the phone, but she perished before he even made it down here,” he said through tears. “So that right there, it hurt him a lot. When we went to the funeral, George just sat there at the casket, and over and over again he would just say ‘Mama, Mama.’”
The “spark of life” doctrine stems from a 1985 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that details about a murder victim’s life can be presented as evidence during a criminal trial.
“The victim was not just bones and sinews covered with flesh, but was imbued with the spark of life,” the Supreme Court stated in its ruling at the time. “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."
On the other hand, “spark of life” witnesses may also give Chauvin an opportunity to appeal if he’s convicted, as the testimony can be seen as a heavy-handed way of playing on the emotions of the jury.
Philonise’s testimony actually marked the second time prosecutors tried to humanize Floyd, whose death under Chauvin’s knee last May 25 sparked a summer of protests against police brutality. In Week One of the criminal trial, prosecutors called Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, to the stand. She recalled tender moments she’d shared with Floyd, including how they met, as well as their struggles with opioid addiction over the years.
Chauvin is charged with second and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter. He faces up to 65 years in prison.