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George Floyd’s girlfriend recounts shared struggle with addiction

In this image from video, witness Courteney Ross testified at the trial of Derek Chauvin.
In this image from video, witness Courteney Ross testified at the trial of Derek Chauvin.Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — They met one evening four summers ago, and she was instantly drawn to his “great, deep, Southern voice.” She gave him her phone number that night, and they became close, exploring the city’s sculpture garden and its vibrant restaurant scene. Soon she was simply calling him “Floyd,” just like his friends did.

For Courteney Ross, a lifelong resident of Minneapolis, George Floyd made her hometown seem new again, undiscovered.

“Floyd was new to the city, so everything was kind of new to him,” Ross said. “He made it seem like I was new to my own city.”

On the fourth day of testimony in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the former officer charged in Floyd’s death, the prosecution presented a fuller picture of George Floyd the person. In testimony, Ross, who had been dating Floyd for almost three years, described how he was a caring partner, a devoted father, and passionate about exercise — a guy who loved to ride his bike and play ball with the neighborhood children.

She talked about all these things, as well as the ups and downs of their relationship, his love for his mother and the devastation he felt when she died a few years ago.

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And like so many Americans, the couple had a shared struggle: opioid addiction.

“Our story, it’s a classic story of how many people get addicted to opioids,” she said. “We both struggled from chronic pain. Mine was in my neck and his was in his back.”

After three days of emotional testimony from bystanders who witnessed Floyd’s death in police custody last May, prosecutors on Thursday nudged the trial forward to one of the central aspects of the case: Floyd’s drug use.

In calling Ross to the stand, prosecutors both sought to humanize Floyd and seize the narrative around his struggle with drugs. By showing he had a high tolerance for opioids, prosecutors hope to cushion the blow of what is expected to be Chauvin’s primary defense — that Floyd died from a drug overdose, not from Chauvin’s knee pressing into his neck for more than nine minutes.

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Over the nearly three-year, on-and-off relationship between Floyd and Ross, there were periods where they were clean, followed by relapse. When they could not obtain prescriptions for opioids from doctors, she said, they bought drugs on the streets.

“Addiction in my opinion is a lifelong struggle,” Ross said, in sometimes halting, tearful testimony. “It’s something we dealt with every day. It’s not something that just comes and goes.”

On Thursday, prosecutors were trying to establish that Floyd — who had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system when he died, according to the toxicology report — had a high tolerance for fentanyl, which would help them rebut the defense’s claims that Floyd died of an overdose.

Eric J. Nelson, Chauvin’s lawyer, approached his cross-examination of Ross delicately, and started by saying: “I’m sorry to hear about your struggles with opioid addiction. Thank you for sharing that with the jury.”

Ross told Nelson that they relapsed together last spring, and that Floyd was hospitalized for several days in March after she found him doubled over in pain from an overdose. Later that month, she thought they had both managed to quit again, but in the weeks before he died in May, a change in Floyd’s behavior made her think he had again begun using.

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“We got addicted and tried really hard to break that addiction many times,” she said. “When you know someone who suffers from any type of addiction, you can start to kind of see changes when they’re using again.”

While the questioning of Ross might have appeared spontaneous and off-the-cuff to jurors and the general public, the trial is well choreographed. All the witnesses are coached and prepared beforehand, sometimes in multiple sessions. Minnesota, in fact, has some of the strictest rules about the sharing of evidence and testimony — so both the defense and prosecution know well in advance what each side will present in a trial.

Jurors also heard on Thursday from two paramedics who said that Floyd was in a dire state by the time they arrived on the scene on May 25. Derek Smith, one of the paramedics, said he could not find a pulse when he felt Floyd’s neck as police officers remained on top of him.

“In lay terms, I thought he was dead,” Smith testified.

In efforts to get Floyd’s heart beating, paramedics used a device to administer chest compressions and a defibrillator to provide an electric shock, but nothing worked, Smith said. Floyd was brought to a hospital where he was officially pronounced dead at 9:25 p.m.

Smith’s testimony could bolster prosecutors’ argument that it was Chauvin’s actions that led to Floyd’s death. Chauvin’s lawyer has suggested that the drugs Floyd had taken may have killed him.

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Minutes after Floyd was taken away in an ambulance, Chauvin told a supervisor that police officers “had to hold the guy down” because he would not stay in the back of a police car and “was going crazy,” according to new body camera footage played in court.

The supervisor, Sergeant David Pleoger, testified that Chauvin had not mentioned applying pressure to Floyd’s neck until later, when they arrived at a nearby hospital and learned that Floyd was not doing well. Pleoger, who has since retired, said that based on body camera videos from the scene, he thought the police officers should have stopped holding Floyd down once he became unresponsive.

“When Mr. Floyd was no longer offering up any resistance to the officers, they could have ended their restraint,” Pleoger said.

In the earlier testimony, Ross also said that Floyd referred to her and his own mother, who died in 2018, by the same nickname: “Mama.” Floyd had called out for “Mama” as Chauvin knelt on his neck before his death.

Floyd had moved to Minneapolis from Houston looking for a fresh start, but after his mother died, Ross said, he changed. “He seemed like a shell of himself,” she said. “Like he was broken. He seemed so sad. He didn’t have the same kind of bounce that he had.”

On Thursday, jurors heard not only about Floyd’s struggle with drugs, but also details about his relationship with Ross.

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She first met him at a Salvation Army homeless shelter where Floyd worked as a security guard. One night, he saw her waiting in the lobby to talk with the father of her two children about one of their son’s birthdays. Floyd sensed that she was upset.

“He was like, ‘Sis, you OK, sis?’” Ross recounted. He told her she was not OK.

“He said, ‘Can I pray with you?’”

“This kind person just to come up to me, and say can I pray with you, when I felt alone in this lobby,” she said. “It was so sweet at the time. I had lost faith in God.”