The prosecution wrapped up it’s case in the Derek Chauvin murder on Monday, April 12. Over the course of more than two weeks, the jury heard extensive testimony about George Floyd’s health problems and struggles with drug addiction. But thanks to an obscure legal doctrine, the jury was also allowed to hear testimony aimed at humanizing George Floyd.
Floyd’s younger brother, Philonise Floyd, took the stand on Monday to share some personal reminisces and reflections, which are permitted under Minnesota’s controversial “Spark of Life” doctrine. To hear this kind of testimony during the evidentiary phase of a trial is unusual. That’s because whether George Floyd was a good brother, or liked to play basketball, or made snacks for his siblings, doesn’t have any bearing on whether Derek Chauvin committed a crime. And, to be clear, it’s not supposed to. So why is it allowed?
During the Derek Chauvin trial for the murder of George Floyd, the [Un]Common Law podcast is exploring the latest issues related to the case. In today’s episode, Ted Sampsell-Jones, a law professor at Minnesota’s Mitchell Hamline School of Law, discusses the “spark of life” doctrine with Bloomberg Law’s Adam Allington. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Transcripts of our episodes are made available as soon as possible. They are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.
ADAM ALLINGTON: With me here to shed some light on the Spark of Life Doctrine, is Ted Sampsell-Jones, a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Professor, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of attorneys, even ones who practice criminal hadn’t heard of this Spark of Life Doctrine before the Chauvin trial, so what is it?
TED SAMPSELL-JONES: Yeah, it makes sense that people haven’t heard of it because Minnesota is atypical and probably even unique in this regard. The idea of Spark of Life testimony is it gives the prosecution a chance to tell a little bit about the victim, sort of life and background from a very personal perspective in ways that has nothing to do with the charged incident in question.
ADAM ALLINGTON: And where did this doctrine come from, has it been around for awhile?
TED SAMPSELL-JONES: It’s been around in Minnesota for a few decades, it was kind of an invention in the mid-1980’s by the Minnesota Supreme Court. And it was just one of those things where there was just a random case where the prosecutor kind of choked up when talking about the victim in the course of giving opening or closing arguments, and the defendant appealed that and said it was inappropriate and Minnesota Supreme Court said that was okay. And it’s okay to discuss, they use this phrase “spark of life,” when referring to the victim. And then it just kind of from there blossomed into this doctrine, that allows much more than that as well.
ADAM ALLINGTON: Now, it is not entirely unheard of to hear these kinds of personal or emotional testimony from the loved ones of a victim, after jury has rendered a decision, during sentencing. They’re called “victim impact statements.” But to hear this kind of testimony during the evidence phase. Doesn’t that risk prejudicing a jury?
TED SAMPSELL-JONES: Yes, absolutely. It’s controversial, and that violates, I think two foundational principles of evidence law. The first is literally Evidence 101. It’s the thing we start with in evidence class when I teach law students, that evidence has to be relevant to be admissible. And relevance means shedding some light on an element of the offense. And of course, spark of life doesn’t do that because it doesn’t shed any light on whether, for example, Chauvin caused Floyd’s death, or whether he used unreasonable force. So it’s really not relevant in the relevant, in the usual sense.
Second, it also probably violates the character evidence rule, which means we don’t put in evidence really of either the defendant’s past or the victim’s path subject to only certain exceptions. And so it kind of conflicts with the character evidence rule as well. So yes, it’s controversial. It’s not something that is really consistent, frankly, with the Minnesota rules of evidence.
ADAM ALLINGTON: Are there any states that have something similar to the spark of life doctrine, as far as you know?
TED SAMPSELL-JONES: I’ve never seen any other States that has anything remotely to the same extent of Minnesota. Now of course, sometimes it comes up in background, you know, you’ll be asking a witness, you know, how do you know the victim? And the witness might say, well, we went to high school together and played football together or something. So of course that kind of thing kind of come up, but Minnesota really allows this evidence in for the purpose of kind of humanizing and making the jury more sympathetic to the victim, which is not something that other states allow.
ADAM ALLINGTON: One the one hand this sounds like a noble intent, right? The desire to humanize a person, but I guess that depends on your point of view.
TED SAMPSELL-JONES: Yes, exactly. And you know, this case is unusual because all of our political sympathies are kind of flipped here. Set aside Derek Chauvin and think of an ordinary case, this is something that prosecutors use in a lot of cases. Really, it’s a little bit of a cheat to make the jury emotional, make the jury sympathetic about the victim. And that might be unduly prejudicial to the defendant in some cases. And that’s why it’s been controversial. It’s why the state public defenders here have been fighting this doctrine ever since it came into existence. In this case (Chauvin), a lot of people are kind of happy that the prosecution is able to do this move. But, in the ordinary case it’s something that really, you know, it works against all kinds of defendants, whether you’re kind of sympathetic with the defendants or not.
ADAM ALLINGTON: So, if I understand your main critique here is that spark of life doesn’t speak to the central question…that is, whether or not Derek Chauvin committed a crime?
TED SAMPSELL-JONES: Exactly right. I mean, think of there’s really two elements that are at issue in this case. One is, did Derek Chauvin caused George Floyd’s death. And that’s kind of going to be probably the central thing that defense is disputing. And the second is, was his use of force reasonable, or put differently, whether he was intending to hurt him as opposed to just using reasonable force. And the fact that, you know, George Floyd’s brother, will talk a little bit about him growing up and what a kind person he was. That really doesn’t shed any light on either of those two disputes.
ADAM ALLINGTON: But there are some limits on Spark of Life testimony, right? Judge Cahill addressed specifically what kind of testimony he would and wouldn’t allow back in March.
JUDGE PETER CAHILL: I’m not allowing a lot of the paths that would amount to “character evidence.” And I’m specifically concerned here about, and it may be true, you know, the fact that Mr. Floyd was described as a “gentle giant.” As soon as you start getting into propensity for violence or propensity for peacefulness, I think then we’re getting into character evidence and then that does open the door for the defense to cross examine about his character for peacefulness.
ADAM ALLINGTON: So, it does sound like there is some amount of risk here as well. If the prosecution tries to humanize Floyd in a way that would open the door for the defense to challenge those statements.
TED SAMPSELL-JONES: There’s always this concept and evidence law of “opening the door.” And that means when one party does something, they open the door to additional evidence from the other side. So it’s kind of like when you make one point, the other side gets an opportunity to rebut that point.
So if you, the prosecution say he’s generally a nonviolent character, then I have to allow the defense to say, well, wait a bit about what about his criminal conviction for home invasion?
That shows that he’s not a nonviolent character. So you can’t like make that point without giving the defense an opportunity to respond. So what judge Cahill said is don’t make that point. Don’t say that Floyd is generally nonviolent. You can talk about his life a little bit. You can talk about how much you loved him. You can talk about his smile, but do not go down the road of talking about violence or other topics that might allow the defense to respond with contrary evidence.
ADAM ALLINGTON: Earlier in the trial we also heard spark of life testimony from Floyd’s girlfriend, Courteney Ross, who talked about how she and Floyd met, as well as their shared addiction to opioids.
COURTENEY ROSS: We both suffered from chronic pain. We got addicted and tried really hard to break that addiction, many times.
ADAM ALLINGTON: Is there a chance that any of this spark of life testimony could give Chauvin an issue to raise on appeal?
TED SAMPSELL-JONES: Yeah, I think there’s a good chance that it will be one of his claims on appeal. Part of what Chauvin’s attorney are trying to do now is set up issues for appeal. They’re probably going to lose and if they lose they’re certainly going to appeal. And so they need to have a bunch of issues for appeal once they lose kind of the process as an appeals lawyer is to say, you know, to say “what are my three or four or five best issues for appeal?”
And yeah, they might decide that the admission of spark of life evidence is one of their issues for appeal. Um, I don’t think it would be their top issue, but it’d be maybe one of their top five. So then they would appeal it to me. And the odds of that succeeding on appeal are near zero, but that doesn’t mean they won’t give it a shot.
ADAM ALLINGTON: Since you bring it up, if you were on the defense team in this case, what issues do you think present the strongest case for appeal?
TED SAMPSELL-JONES: Well, the one big wild card still has to do with third degree murder and that depends on what the Minnesota Supreme court does in the [Mohamed] Noor case. And it’s the same kind of legal issue about the meaning of third-degree murder is present in the Noor case, which is still pending in the Minnesota Supreme court and also in Chauvin.
So, if in some crazy world Chauvin was not convicted of second-degree murder, but then was convicted of third-degree murder. And then the Supreme court decides in Noor’s favor that other case, then that’s going to give Chauvin an absolute killer issue for appeal and would mean he would get all the way down to manslaughter, which would really be a good result for the defense. So, I’d say that’s kind of the top thing, but that’s uncertain. And if Chauvin is convicted of second-degree murder that wouldn’t make any difference. To the second issue, I would say. It’s just all the questions about pretrial, publicity and jury placement. So, there’s no question that they will appeal things like the trial should have been moved to another city. The trial should have been delayed based on the publicity. The trial should have been delayed.
All these things about, you know, the Minneapolis City Council press conference, the riots last night. I mean, Chauvin’s attorney raised that again this morning about the shooting and the publicity and the riots last night. All of those things are aimed at showing that this was a biased jury. So, I would say that’s almost certain to be one of their top couple of issues for appeal. Once again, the odds of that working are, low, they are things will be things that will be appealed.
ADAM ALLINGTON: Despite being somewhat controversial, others saw there are important legal reasons for spark of life testimony. Lee Merritt, an attorney for the Floyd family, told ABC News that spark of life testimony is a way to remind jurors of the personal impacts on a someone who was treated so unfortunately by the system.
LEE MERRITT: Very often in these cases, historically we begin to dehumanize the victims. When Rodney King was the victim of, the famous incident of police brutality in Los Angeles, seeing that video over and over again, desensitized the public and often the jury pool. Similarly, George Floyd has become a hashtag, he’s become a rallying cry. But the family wants the jury to know that he was a person, that his life had value, that family members relied on him. And how that evidence comes in is going to be very, very important to this family. Probably again, more important to this family than any other aspect of the case.