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Understanding the 'Spark of Life' Doctrine in Chauvin Trial

Witness swearing on the bible telling the truth in the court room or pleading no contest
By Andrew Leonatti | Last updated on
The prosecution continues to call witnesses in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer accused of murdering George Floyd. So far, the jury has heard extensive testimony from eyewitnesses, police officials, and medical experts. All made similar arguments that Chauvin's restraint of Floyd was unnecessarily violent and a violation of police protocols. The jury also heard earlier this month from Courteney Ross, Floyd's long-time girlfriend. Floyd's brother, Philonise Floyd, will likely take the stand this week. Ross and Philonise Floyd were not at the scene. Instead, they will both speak to different periods of George Floyd's life outside the fateful day of his death.

The 'Spark of Life' Doctrine

Why this is controversial is because character witnesses typically appear on behalf of the defense. In a criminal trial such as Chauvin's, the prosecution has one job: to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Chauvin is guilty of causing Floyd's death. How is testimony about George Floyd's childhood relevant to Chauvin's guilt or innocence? In Minnesota, however, prosecutors are allowed to call these "spark of life" witnesses. In a 1985 Minnesota Supreme Court ruling upholding a murder conviction, the defense argued that the prosecutor unfairly prejudiced the jury in making an emotional speech about the life of the victim. The court held:
While it is true that the quality or personal details of the victim's life are not strictly relevant to the issue ... the victim was not just bones and sinews covered with flesh, but was imbued with the spark of life. 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.
According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, in most Minnesota cases, this amounts to allowing one witness and a smiling photograph of the victim.

Why Is This Controversial?

According to most legal analysis, Minnesota stands alone in allowing these witnesses for the prosecution during the trial. In most criminal cases, victims' family members and loved ones typically provide the "spark of life" during sentencing, after the trial. "The 'spark of life' doctrine is controversial because it violates the foundational principle of relevance in evidence law," said Mitchell Hamline School of Law professor Ted Sampsell-Jones. Chuck Ramsay, a Minneapolis criminal defense attorney, went further, calling the doctrine "damning to the defense" because it can provide "undue sympathy" for the victim. "I've never encountered this before," said University of Wisconsin law professor John Gross, a former New York City public defender. "It's pretty obvious how much potential prejudice that could have on the jury. If it isn't evidence of guilt, why is it there?" Civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump, who represents the Floyd family, argues that "no one works to humanize that person" in cases where the victim is a minority. "[Floyd] was loved and that there was something taken from us, taken from society, taken from the world."

How Will it Affect the Chauvin Trial?

In pre-trial motions, Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill approved two "spark of life" witnesses. However, he warned prosecutors that there must be limits on the testimony. If witnesses were to stray too far, such as describing Floyd as a "gentle giant," Cahill could allow defense attorneys to cross-examine these witnesses about areas of Floyd's life he has already deemed off-limits, such as Floyd's prior criminal record. Floyd "is is entitled to have the jury realize he was a human being," Cahill said. "As soon as you start getting into propensity for violence or propensity for peacefulness, then we're getting into character evidence." In her testimony, Ross spoke about both her and Floyd's struggles with opiate addiction. University of Minnesota law professor David Schultz said it was an attempt to show that "Floyd is not a perfect person." While it was likely an attempt to get in front of defense attacks on Floyd's drug use, Ross's testimony gave defense attorney Eric Nelson a chance to question her about an overdose Floyd suffered a few months before his death. Prosecutor Matthew Frank has said that Philonise Floyd's testimony will be limited to information about George Floyd's childhood in Texas.

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