MANHATTAN (CN) – Fighting administrative charges for the first time related to the 2014 death of Eric Garner, a Staten Island police officer hinged his defense Monday on the famous refrain “I can’t breathe,” the words that would be Garner’s last.
“We know he wasn’t choked out because he is speaking,” defense attorney Stuart London said Monday, referring to footage of Garner’s fatal confrontation with officer Daniel Pantaleo outside the Staten Island ferry terminal.
Police had been attempting to arrest 43-year-old Garner for selling loose cigarettes when a bystander filmed Pantaleo holding his arms around Garner’s neck as he gasped repeatedly that he could not breathe.
A medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, but a grand jury did not return an indictment against the officer, triggering massive protests over the trend of police officers facing little discipline for causing the deaths of unarmed suspects. As was the case in a number of such deaths at the time, Garner was black.
Pantaleo, who is white, averted criminal prosecution but could lose his job if the Civilian Complaint Review Board concludes that he killed Garner with an illegal chokehold.
Kicking off Pantaleo’s trial at police headquarters in Lower Manhattan this morning, attorney London argued that Pantaleo used an approved neck hold known as “the seat-belt technique.”
He also called it a common misconception that Garner when he gasped, “I can’t breathe,” during the hold, saying the words actually came as Pantaleo attempted to put handcuffs on Garner.
London argued that Pantaleo used the hold only after Garner had tried to push him toward a plate-glass window, making the officer fear for his life.
Disputing the medical examiner’s findings as well, London blamed Garner’s death on “being morbidly obese … coupled with chronic asthma.”
“He was a ticking time bomb who set these factors in motion by resisting arrest,” London said.
Heaping blame as well on emergency medical technicians, saying they casually arrived at the scene without oxygen or other measures that could have helped Garner, London described Garner as so medically fragile that even a bear hug might have killed him.
“The only one that did their job that day, I will submit, is Officer Pantaleo,” he said.
Pantaleo has been on desk duty since Garner’s death and could face penalties ranging from the loss of vacation days to firing if he is found to have violated department rules.
The Civilian Complaint Review Board handles disciplinary proceedings involving the most serious allegations against officers through a memorandum of understanding with the New York City Police Department.
Garner’s mother and sister, who settled civil claims with the NYPD for $5.9 million in 2015, reportedly left today’s proceedings in tears as video of Garner’s arrest was played for the board.
In the front row of the courtroom today, the Rev. Al Sharpton sat beside Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, and later spoke outside of the police headquarters at a rainy afternoon rally, which also included speakers from activist groups Copwatch and Black Lives Matters, among others.
Last week on NY1’s “Inside City Hall” talk show, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio pointed the finger at the U.S. Department of Justice for the long road to Pantaleo’s trial.
“There is an original sin here, and it’s in the Justice Department,” de Blasio told anchor Errol Louis. “It’s clear, and by the way over two different administrations.”
De Blasio specified two things the DOJ could have done differently.
“One, they could have said to us, proceed with your internal disciplinary charges,” he said. “We would have done that immediately. No, they said don’t proceed, because their investigation took precedent.”
The CCRB disciplinary trial is expected to last more than two weeks.