The definition of what constitutes a chokehold was intensely debated Monday as the departmental trial began for NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose apparent chokehold allegedly killed Eric Garner in 2014.
Deputy Inspector Charles Barton, who was with the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau at the time of Garner’s death, testified that the department requested in January 2015 that Pantaleo be internally charged with using a chokehold. Stuart London, an attorney for Pantaleo, argued that officer did not use a chokehold, but rather a "seat belt" maneuver, which he said was an "approved technique" of taking someone down to the ground.
The CCRB is responsible for drafting any internal charges. A spokeswoman said that the charges were not filed then because the DOJ investigation was still ongoing.
Garner was killed on July 17, 2014 as police in Staten Island tried to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes. His death was captured on video, and his dying words — “I can’t breathe,” which he said 11 times — became a rallying cry for many. Garner’s death, as well as other high-profile police-involved deaths, also became the catalyst for Gov. Andrew Cuomo signing an executive order in July 2015 that gave the attorney general the ability to take over cases in which an unarmed civilian is killed by a law enforcement officer.
The NYPD had previously deferred taking any disciplinary action in the case until federal prosecutors in both Brooklyn and Washington, D.C., decided whether they would bring a criminal case over his death. In December 2014, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict any officers involved in Garner’s death.
Ramsey Orta, 27, who captured the last moments of Garner’s life on cellphone video detailed the harrowing minutes before and after police arrived at the Staten Island block. Orta, via video feed, said he had been talking to Garner about football and watched him help break up a fight when police arrived. What followed was a struggle with Pantaleo, Orta said, which was detailed on the video he captured.
"He kept saying ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.’ Then I saw his eyes roll back," Orta recalled.
Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, left the courtroom crying as the video was played. Orta put his head down, visibly emotional.
In his examination of Orta, defense attorney London said that Orta was no stranger to lying on the stand. London detailed Orta’s extensive criminal history and got him to admit that he has lied under oath previously (Orta said he is currently serving four years for crimes he said he didn’t commit, but pleaded guilty to). Orta also said he has received more than $15,000 from selling his video of Garner’s death to the New York Daily News and received royalties for online views.
"Mr. Garner died from being morbidly obese … He was a ticking time bomb," London said during his opening statement. "Had he accepted the summons, he would be with us today."
Jonathan Fogel, who represented the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which is prosecuting Pantaleo in the departmental trial, said in his opening statement that the police were "indifferent " to Garner’s pleading for help. He said the CCRB will prove that Pantaleo’s actions were a "domino effect" that led to an asthma attack and a heart attack.
"It is an outrage Eric Garner is not alive today," Fogel said. "He did not deserve a death sentence for selling loosies."
Protesters gathered outside police headquarters, braving the rain to chant "fire Pantaleo" as the trail concluded for the day.
"It’s been five years — five years we’ve been on the front line trying to get justice and they’re still trying to sweep it under the rug," Carr said, speaking to reporters earlier in the day.
Following the internal disciplinary proceedings — presided over by Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado — Police Commissioner James O’Neill will ultimately have discretion over whether Pantaleo is fired, handed down a lesser disciplinary action or receives no disciplinary action at all.