A week-long departmental trial for Daniel Pantaleo, the New York police officer who put Eric Garner in an alleged unauthorized chokehold that led to his death nearly five years ago on Staten Island, is underway.
Garner’s final words on July 17, 2014, “I can’t breathe,” became a national rallying cry in protests over issues of race and justice.
Pantaleo’s departmental trail is not a criminal proceeding, but a matter before an NYPD administrative judge, Deputy Commissioner Rosemarie Maldando, who will weigh whether Pantaleo inappropriately used the maneuver. The judge’s decision goes to Police Commissioner James O’Neill, who will then decide Pantaleo's fate with the NYPD.
"Mr. Garner is dead because Daniel Pantaleo used a strictly, prohibited chokehold that NYPD unequivocally banned and was trained to never do...a death sentence over loose cigarettes," said Jonathan Fogle, an attorney for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, during his opening statement on Monday. "Commissioner, it's an outrage that Mr. Garner is not alive today."
Garner, 43, was a father who lived in the Tompkinsville section of Staten Island and was known by officers in the area to sell loose cigarettes -- a low-level quality of life misdemeanor offense, said Pantaleo's attorney, Stuart London, during his opening statements.
However, according to Garner’s friend Ramsey Orta, who filmed the last five minutes of his life, Garner was not selling that day.
Almost 90 seconds into the interaction between Garner, Pantaleo and his partner, Officer Justin D'Amico, Orta began recording on his cell phone.
Orta testified Monday through video conference from an upstate prison, where he is serving a four year sentence for unrelated weapons and drug possession.
Garner is seen on the video frustrated that the officers were stopping him. "Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I'm tired of it. It stops today," Garner said before Pantaleo raised his arm up and grabbed the 400-pound Garner from behind.
London said that his client used a takedown method called a "seatbelt" -- not a chokehold -- to maneuver Garner to the pavement.
"Eric Garner didn't swing or hit any of these officers. There were three other officers there that didn't use a chokehold," Fogle countered. "This officer didn't let go even after Mr. Garner fell to the ground...When he locked his hands together it became more than reckless."
Fogle paused during his opening statements for 15 seconds -- the amount of time Pantaleo kept Garner in the alleged chokehold. During the time that Pantaleo was allegedly locked around Garner, "another officer said, 'He's down!' This officer still didn't let go for 15 seconds," said Fogle.
The video of Garner’s death was played in the courtroom. As Garner began repeating “I can’t breathe” -- which he said 11 times in total -- his mother Gwen Carr and sister Elisha Garner began to audibly cry.
Garner's loved ones eventually stepped outside the courtroom with Rev. Al Sharpton and other supporters by their side.
"Eric Garner pleads for air is ignored. Instead of giving aid, this officer buries this man's face in the ground, moments later he goes unconscious and minute later he died," said Fogle.
Fogle warned Commissioner Maldonado that she'll learn that Garner was not a healthy man, but added the city's medical examiner's report and testimony will prove that "the chokehold was a trigger that killed Garner...a lethal cascade."
London dramatically ripped up a copy of the autopsy reported that concluded Garner’s death was as a result of a chokehold.
"He died of being obese," said London. "Had he accepted the summons, he would be here with us today,” said London, referring to the summons that the officers allegedly attempted to serve Garner.
The use of a chokehold has been banned by the NYPD since 1993, according to the NYPD Patrol Guide.
An internal affairs investigation was launched the day after Garner's death in 2014, and six months later, NYPD Deputy Inspector Charles Barton ordered the CCRB to file charges against Pantaleo, saying that the officer “used a chokehold upon review.” However, a Staten Island grand jury declined to prosecute Pantaleo and the Justice Department declined to pursue a federal civil rights case against him. Pantaleo has been relegated to desk duty for several years.
It's unclear if Pantaleo or D'Amico will testify during the week-long departmental trial.
If Pantaleo is found guilty of violating department rules, he faces penalties ranging from the loss of vacation days to termination.
Pantaleo has denied all wrongdoing.