By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) – The disciplinary trial of the New York City police officer who put Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, in a fatal chokehold began on Monday, nearly five years after widely seen video of the death sparked a national outcry about policing tactics.
Daniel Pantaleo, who is white, could be fired after the conclusion of what is expected to be a 10-day trial at the New York Police Department’s Manhattan headquarters. The ultimate decision will rest with Police Commissioner James O’Neill.
Videos recorded on bystanders’ cell phones showed Garner, who was 43, saying “I can’t breathe” 11 times before he died. The phrase became a rallying cry in the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, which seeks to end the disproportionate use of deadly force against nonwhite people by U.S. police departments.
“His last words, ‘I can’t breathe,’ tell you who caused his death,” Jonathan Fogel, a lawyer for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, said during opening statements. “He gave his victim a death sentence over loose cigarettes because he disregarded his training.”
The first witness to testify during the trial was Ramsey Orta, Garner’s friend who shot cellphone footage of the incident.
“He kept saying ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.’ I seen his eyes roll back and that was it,” said Orta, who testified over video because he is serving a prison sentence for weapons and narcotic crimes.
The trial is being closely watched by civil rights activists who say too few police officers face consequences for using deadly force as well as those, including New York’s powerful police officers’ union, who defend officers for doing a dangerous job.
Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, started loudly sobbing as the footage was first played. She left the room with a tissue over her mouth, accompanied by civil rights activist Al Sharpton.
Pantaleo, 33, has been assigned to a desk job since the deadly encounter on a sidewalk in the borough of Staten Island in 2014, when he and other officers tried to arrest Garner on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes.
“Officer Pantaleo was justified in using physical force to make this arrest,” said Pantaleo’s lawyer, Stuart London, arguing that the officer did not cause Garner’s death.
London said Pantaleo did not use a chokehold, but rather a “seat belt” maneuver that goes around the torso which slipped into a neck hold because of Garner’s size. Garner was considered medically obese at 400 pounds (181 kg).
During-cross examination, Orta agreed with London, saying that Pantaleo’s left arm was not around Garner’s neck at least some of the time when he was saying that he could not breathe.
New York City’s chief medical examiner ruled that Garner was killed in part by a chokehold compressing his neck.
A Staten Island grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against Pantaleo later in 2014, prompting the U.S. Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation into the death. Garner’s family has criticized that investigation as it has stretched into its fourth year without resolution.
The city’s Civilian Complaints Review Board, which prosecutes certain violations of police rules, determined in 2017 that Pantaleo used excessive force.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen, additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)