Officer's chokehold triggered Eric Garner's death, medical examiner testifies

/ CBS/AP

NYPD cop accused of chokehold fights for job

The medical examiner who performed an autopsy on Eric Garner testified Wednesday that a police officer'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 set off an asthma attack and led to him going into cardiac arrest following a confrontation with New York City police officers in 2014, Dr. Floriana Persechino said.

New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo leaves his house Monday, May 13, 2019, in Staten Island, N.Y., to face an NYPD disciplinary trial for the July 2014 death of Eric Garner. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / AP

She testified at the disciplinary hearing for Officer Daniel Pantaleo, narrating along at times with graphic autopsy photos that have never previously been seen in a public forum.

Persechino said a bystander's video of the confrontation only helped confirm her findings that the officer had wrapped his arm around Garner's neck, obstructing his breathing. The NYPD banned chokeholds in the 1990s because they can be deadly.

Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, heeded a warning from the administrative judge and left the hearing room before the autopsy photos were shown. On Monday, Carr and other Garner family members left the court in tears as the video, during which Garner is heard saying repeatedly, "I can't breathe," was played. The video quickly went viral after Garner's death, and his pleas became a rallying cry against police brutality.

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"The words 'I can't breathe' tells you who causes his death. Daniel Pantaleo used a prohibited chokehold," said attorney Jonathan Fogel for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the watchdog agency acting as the prosecutor, during opening statements Monday.

Eric Garner's mother speaks as cop's disciplinary trial begins

Persechino testified Garner weighed 395 pounds at the time of his July 2014 death. He suffered from asthma, diabetes and had a heart nearly double the size of a person in good health. Nonetheless, she said, he didn't appear in distress when seen on security video crossing a street about an hour before Pantaleo grabbed him.

Pantaleo's lawyer, Stuart London, focused on Garner's health as he cross-examined Persechino. London has argued that Pantaleo didn't use a chokehold, but rather an academy-taught "seatbelt technique." He argued during opening statements that Garner's chronic asthma made him a "ticking time bomb."

A report from the NYPD's top doctor concluded Garner was "predisposed to morbidity and mortality" and that his death was "brought on by a heated argument followed by a physical struggle," London said.

The NYPD doctor, Eli Kleinman, did not personally examine Garner's body, relying instead on the autopsy and video of the confrontation, London said. Kleinman will testify later in the trial that he concluded Pantaleo did not use a chokehold to restrain Garner, London said.

London argued Garner could've saved himself had he acquiesced to being arrested after officers said they suspected him of selling untaxed loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street corner. Before Pantaleo grabbed him, Garner is seen on video arguing with the officers, protesting what he considered constant harassment.

The NYPD's disciplinary process plays out like a trial in front of an administrative judge. Normally the purpose is to determine whether an officer violated department rules, but that's only if disciplinary charges are filed within 18 months of an incident.

eric-garner.jpg
Eric Garner is pictured in an undated family photo released by the National Action Network. AP Photo

Because Pantaleo's case languished, the Civilian Complaint Review Board must show that his actions rose to the level of criminal conduct, even though he faces no criminal charges and is being tried in a department tribunal, not a criminal court.

The final decision on any punishment lies with the police commissioner. Penalties range from the loss of vacation days to firing.

Pantaleo, 33, denies wrongdoing. He has been on desk duty since Garner's death.

Speaking Monday to a group of supporters calling for Pantaleo's termination, Garner's mother said the video that was seen around the world shows her son being murdered.
"Eric is crying from heaven, because he sees his mother and his family out here still trying to fight for justice for him," Carr said. "It's been five years — five years we've been on the front lines trying to get justice and they're still trying to sweep it under the rug."

First published on May 15, 2019 / 6:08 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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