George Floyd said over and over that he could not breathe as Minneapolis police pinned him to the ground last May. He told his late mother that he loved her. Then he called out to a friend across the street.
"I love you, Reese!" Floyd said.
That was his nickname for Morries Lester Hall, a man who was a passenger in Floyd's car the last night of his life and is now emerging as a controversial figure in the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin.
Though Chauvin's attorney Eric Nelson had told jurors that they would hear from passengers in the car who saw Floyd use drugs before police arrived, Hall has since invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid testifying. Outside the presence of the jury, attorneys debated Tuesday whether Hall should be called to testify, as he appeared via video while jailed in Hennepin County on another matter.
If questioned on the stand, Hall could bolster the defense's argument that Floyd died of a drug overdose, not because of Chauvin kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes. Floyd's girlfriend Courteney Ross testified that Hall had supplied Floyd with drugs before, and she was among several friends who told the Star Tribune that they had warned Floyd to stay away from him.
"Morries Hall is a complicated guy," said Mark Kallenbach, one of Hall's attorneys and a friend. "He's actually had a very tough but fascinating life and he's really working hard to get it right."
Hall, 42, moved to Minnesota from Houston in 2011 with the help of John Riles, a pastor who helped people struggling with chemical addiction and poverty travel to the Twin Cities to better their lives.
Floyd's friend Reginal Smith, a Houston native who also came to Minneapolis with Riles' help, recalled that Hall did well for a while, attending rehab, working at a slaughterhouse and vowing "to get my life right." He was supposed to spend the 2012 holidays with Smith's family, but borrowed his car and was arrested for burglary two days before Christmas.
Hall served four years in prison until 2017. At some point he began staying at the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center, a downtown homeless shelter. It was also where Floyd worked as a security guard after moving from Houston in early 2017 at the direction of Riles and several friends.
Hall and Floyd became friends, bonding over their Houston roots and fishing together at Bde Maka Ska.
"Floyd, he loved Reese," said Aubrey Rhodes, a friend of Floyd's from Houston who worked at the shelter. "That was his boy."
Still, Rhodes tried to keep some distance from Hall as he saw him go in and out of jail. Robert Fonteno, a transplant from Houston who bought Floyd's bus ticket to Minneapolis, was also skeptical of Hall.
"Why are you even hanging around him?" Fonteno, a Bloomington resident, recalled saying to Floyd a few years ago. "The dude is going to put you in a bad position."
In August 2019, police stopped Hall outside the Harbor Light Center and found 23 grams combined of cocaine and meth in his backpack, along with a gun — which Hall was barred from carrying due to his criminal record — in his locker at the shelter. Ross grew wary of Hall, and recalled arguing with Floyd about him on May 24, 2020.
"I said, 'Reese is ... such a bad influence,' " Ross recalled in a Star Tribune interview last fall (she said this week that she could not speak again until after the trial). "I told him, 'I'm not giving you an ultimatum, but if you keep hanging out with him, it's going to be a problem in our relationship.' "
She said Floyd replied that Hall was his friend and she couldn't tell him who to spend time with. They ended the conversation with "I love yous," Ross recalled. Still, she decided to block him on her phone the next day, because she was angry and needed time to cool off. On May 26, when Ross was ready to reconnect with her boyfriend, a relative of Floyd's called with the news that he was dead.
"I have a lot of guilt," said Ross. "If I was there that day for him, he wouldn't have had to turn to Reese."
Hall is visible in various videos at the scene that began with a clerk at Cup Foods calling to report that Floyd had used a fake $20 bill. Footage shows police coming out to a blue Mercedes-Benz to confront Floyd on the driver's side, while Hall sits in the front passenger's seat. Wearing a white shirt, red pants and a matching red hat, Hall appears calm and follows police orders as other officers pull Floyd from the car for questioning and walk him across the street. He tells a policeman that Floyd was giving him and a second passenger, Shawanda Hill, a ride, and cops direct both to wait on the sidewalk.
Days after Floyd's death, Hall hitchhiked to Houston and was arrested on outstanding warrants involving gun and drug possession along with domestic assault. He was interviewed by a Minnesota investigator and released. Hall told CNN in June that "he was just sitting helpless" listening to Floyd's screams. His attorney, Ashlee McFarlane, told the news station that Hall didn't find out his friend had died until looking at social media the following day.
Back in the Twin Cities, Kallenbach heard about Hall through his volunteer work with homelessness, and was impressed upon learning that he spent six weeks over the summer at Houston's renowned Menninger Clinic seeking psychiatric care and addiction treatment. The attorney flew to meet Hall in Dallas and took him to a steakhouse for dinner, determined to help him.
"Let me see if there's something I can do for you — if I can help you at all, I'm here," Kallenbach, of St. Louis Park, recalled telling Hall. "Life has been kind to me. I need heaven points."
Hall struck him as smart, confident and willing to learn from his mistakes.
"I know that everybody says, 'Well Mark, the guy is a criminal, he's a bad person,' " said Kallenbach. "He's a very good guy. He has a good heart."
Hall moved back to the Twin Cities around September, according to Kallenbach. Since then, Kallenbach has represented Hall pro bono on some legal matters, helped him find sober housing and become a confidant.
"It is absolutely stressful for him to be called" to testify, he said. "This is very uncomfortable because it's his friend."
Last month, Hall was ordered to jail for violating a domestic violence no-contact order. Kallenbach said Hall's jail stay stemmed from a "toxic relationship" Hall has with the mother of his child, and anticipated he would be released soon.
Rhodes said Hall is between a rock and a hard place, but wishes he would testify.
"There's no way to know the truth unless he gets up there," said Rhodes. "He can tell you what really happened, what really went down. Everybody wants to know what really happened."