NEW YORK (AP) — Nearly five years after Eric Garner’s pleas of “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry against police brutality, a disciplinary trial began Monday for the New York City police officer accused of hastening his death with a banned chokehold.
The start of Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s internal trial, which could lead to his firing, sparked protests in the streets and evoked emotional reactions from Garner’s family in the hearing room as video of the July 2014 confrontation was played.
The police watchdog agency bringing the case featured the video prominently at the start of the two-week trial, using the cell phone footage of Garner being grabbed and pulled to the ground to shield against alternate explanations and concerns about the credibility of the man who recorded it.
“His last words, ‘I can’t breathe,’ tell you who caused his death,” Jonathan Fogel, a lawyer for the watchdog Civilian Complaint Review Board, said in an opening statement.
Pantaleo’s lawyer, Stuart London, countered that the video shows the officer using an approved technique known as a “seat-belt hold” to restrain Garner and that he is being made to be a scapegoat in a politically charged atmosphere.
Ramsey Orta, a friend of Garner’s who shot the video of the confrontation, conceded during cross-examination that Pantaleo’s arm wasn’t around Garner’s neck when he uttered, “I can’t breathe.”
“We know he wasn’t choked out because he is speaking,” London said.
The lawyer called it a common misconception that the phrase was uttered when the officer’s hands or arms were around Garner’s neck. Garner made the plea while lying on the sidewalk as officers were trying to handcuff him, London said.
London said Pantaleo had pulled the much larger Garner to the ground because he feared they would crash through a plate-glass window while tussling against a Staten Island storefront. Garner, who was 43, weighed 350 pounds (159 kilograms) and suffered from asthma since childhood.
“Mr. Garner died from being morbidly obese,” London said in his opening statement, describing him as a “ticking timebomb.”
The police department’s disciplinary process plays out like a trial in front of an administrative judge, but the purpose is to determine whether Pantaleo violated department rules. The final decision on any punishment lies with the police commissioner, with penalties ranging from the loss of vacation days to firing.
Pantaleo, 33, has been on desk duty since Garner’s death. He denies wrongdoing and does not face criminal charges.
Two police officials involved in an internal affairs investigation into Garner’s death testified that they found Pantaleo likely violated department rules and that a request for disciplinary charges was made in January 2015.
The police department put the disciplinary matter on hold while federal prosecutors weighed a possible civil rights case against Pantaleo. The department decided to move forward with the discipline case last year as the federal investigation appeared to have stalled.
Garner’s sister, Ellisha Garner, left the courtroom wailing as Orta’s video played. Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, also walked out. She had tears streaming down her face as the Rev. Al Sharpton escorted her to the hallway.
Back in the courtroom later, Ellisha looked away and pressed her fingers into her ears to block the sound as the video was played again.
Pantaleo, wearing a gray suit, sat quietly throughout the proceeding.
“There are a lot of mixed emotions,” Ellisha Garner said afterward.
About 100 people marched from City Hall to police headquarters in lower Manhattan as the trial began. Another protest stopped morning rush hour traffic on Manhattan’s FDR Drive. A smaller group chanting “Fire Pantaleo” tried to drown out Pat Lynch, the president of Pantaleo’s union, the Police Benevolent Association, as he spoke to reporters in the rain outside.
Orta, 27, testified via video from a state prison where he’s serving a four-year sentence for gun and drug possession.
He said that he and Garner were standing on the sidewalk chatting about football and making plans to go to Buffalo Wild Wings when two men started fighting nearby. Garner helped calm the fracas, Orta said.
Pantaleo and another plainclothes officer showed up moments later, but they weren’t concerned about the fight, Orta said. They focused on Garner, accusing him of selling untaxed loose cigarettes — something he’d been picked up for in the past.
Garner, tired of what he considered constant harassment, shouted at the officers: “It stops today. I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone.”
London tried poking holes in Orta’s credibility by pointing to his record and what Orta said was $10,000 to $15,000 he’s earned in royalties on the video.
Orta helped London by saying he didn’t actually commit some of the crimes he’s locked up for. London asked if that meant he lied to the judge when he pleaded guilty.
Later, under questioning by review board lawyer Suzanne O’Hare, Orta said he was telling the truth about what happened to Garner.
“It’s fair to say your cell phone video is not lying under oath,” O’Hare added.
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