Police Witness Calls Garner ‘Irate’ Before Chokehold Death

Gwen Carr, the mother of the late Eric Garner, addresses supporters outside New York City Police headquarters at One Police Plaza following proceedings Tuesday in the trial of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. Relegated to desk duty since Garner’s death in 2014, Pantaleo denies that he killed Garner with an illegal chokehold. (Photo by JOSH RUSSELL/Courthouse News Service)

MANHATTAN (CN) – Facing administrative charges that could get him fired, the police officer who put Eric Garner in the illegal chokehold that killed him received supportive testimony Tuesday from a fellow officer who said Garner had been resisting arrest.

Though widely circulated footage of 2014 killing shows Garner gasping “I can’t breathe,” in a hold by Officer Daniel Pantaleo that the NYPD considers illegal, fellow Officer Justin Damico testified Tuesday that Pantaleo only took Garner down after they had been trying for 10 minutes to make an arrest.

During 90 minutes of testimony, Damico said Garner’s death happened about two weeks after he had given the 43-year-old a warning for selling loose cigarettes — a misdemeanor tax infraction.

When the officer spotted Garner again selling so-called loosies outside the Staten Island ferry on July 17, 2014, he said the 43-year-old was “irate” about facing arrest.

Pantaleo’s defense attorney John Tynan with the firm Worth, Longworth & London lead the direct questioning of the witness and characterized Garner as “shrill, loud, disrespectful.” 

Pantaleo, 33, never faced criminal charges for Garner’s death, which medical examiners ruled a homicide, but the disciplinary charges against him by the Civilian Complaint Review Board could cost him his badge.

CCRB attorney Suzanne O’Hare asked Damico today on cross-examination if he saw Pantaleo reaching for Garner’s neck. Stopping short of describing Pantaleo as having put Garner in a chokehold, Damico instead said he recalled seeing Pantaleo reaching at Garner’s “upper body” with “his bicep is on the head area.”

Defense attorney Stuart London objected meanwhile at the lawyer’s suggestion during the cross-examination that Pantaleo had performed a chokehold: “Arm around the neck is the proper terminology,” London insisted. 

Damico testified that he believed Garner was “playing possum” when he became unresponsive after being taken down and handcuffed.

Last week, the medical examiner who performed an autopsy on Garner testified that a Pantaleo’s chokehold set into motion “a lethal sequence of events,” but she said even a bear hug could’ve hastened his death given Garner’s fragile health. 

Hemorrhaging in Garner’s neck muscles was indicative of a chokehold that triggered an asthma attack and led to him going into cardiac arrest following a confrontation with New York City police officers in July 2014, Dr. Floriana Persechino said Thursday.

Today’s hearing is the lone proceeding in the disciplinary trial for this week and next. Pantaleo’s defense expects to rest their case when the trial resumes on Wednesday, June 5.

After the hearing Tuesday, Garner’s mother Gwen Carr expressed her frustration with the drawn-out duration and limited scope of the NYPD trial.

“I’m tired of the disruptions. I’m tired of them trying to make our family out as the perpetrators instead of the victims, trying to get Pantaleo to come out smelling like a rose,” Carr said to a crowd of supporters and reporters gathered outside the NYPD Police Headquarters in Lower Manhattan. 

Flanked by members of New York City’s police union, Pantaleo’s defense lawyers attempted to make a public statement in the same location Tuesday afternoon outside of police headquarters. They were efficiently drowned out, however, by protesters’ determined chant “Hey hey! Ho ho, Pantaleo has got to go!”

In a written statement Tuesday, Police Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said that Damico’s testimony showed that he and Pantaleo had utilized “textbook de-escalation techniques to limit the use of force against a much larger and irate individual.”

“We are convinced that if the politics of the streets are removed from this process and the case is decided on a dispassionate hearing of the facts, that PO Pantaleo will be exonerated,” Lynch said.

Damico testified that a search of Garner’s cargo pants pocket turned up four sealed packs of cigarettes and one open pack of Newports with Virginia tax stamps. 

Damico testified that a fire department paramedic performed CPR on Garner with chest compressions after unsuccessfully trying to revive him with an electric defibrillator.

The officer also said he had not informed Pantaleo about his earlier brush with Garner, and that most of the 10-minute encounter with Garner was spent on “verbal judo” in an effort de-escalate the situation before moving in to cuff him.  

Playing bystander-shot footage of the episode, Tynan pointed out that Damico can be seen in the video reaching for pepper spray but never deploying the weapon.

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