Courteney Ross’s testimony showed how police departments fail in their duty to protect those who battle addiction
Of all the accounts of George Floyd’s life and death heard in a Minneapolis courtroom this week, perhaps the least expected was his girlfriend’s description of their shared struggle with opioid addiction.
Courteney Ross’s wrenching testimony gave a very human glimpse into the remorseless search for a fix and a mutual fight to shake off drug dependency.
It was a story that would be recognised by millions of Americans sucked into the greatest drug epidemic in their country’s history by the pharmaceutical industry’s cavalier drive to flood the US with opioid painkillers.
The defence lawyer for Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer on trial for murder over Floyd’s death, saw something in Ross’s account too. An opportunity.
Ross told of her boyfriend’s brush with death from an overdose just weeks before he drew his last breath under Chauvin’s knee in May last year. He took a pill she didn’t recognise. “His stomach really hurt,” she said. “He was doubled over in pain.”
Ross said she noticed a white substance around Floyd’s mouth and got him to hospital, where he stayed for several days after apparently overdosing. It wasn’t the first time.
Chauvin’s lawyer, Eric Nelson, drew attention to the similarity between Ross’s description and the police account of Floyd’s condition as they arrested him: a man complaining that his stomach hurt and with white foam around his mouth.
Nelson’s intent was to undercut the prosecution claim that Chauvin killed Floyd by keeping his knee on his neck for more than nine minutes as Floyd lay on the ground.
The defence has made a simple calculation. Sow doubt in just one juror about the cause of death – after all the official autopsy showed Floyd had a mix of drugs in his system – and Chauvin could walk free.
But if the defence claim is that Floyd was evidently overdosing, or at least under the influence of drugs, why did Chauvin and his fellow officers not act on that at the time?
From video recordings and police body camera footage shown in court, it’s clear Floyd was in distress even before Chauvin put his knee on his neck. He was rambling and confused when officers arrived at the scene. The cashier who sold Floyd cigarettes shortly before his arrest told the trial he was evidently high, although friendly and not threatening.