A long-delayed disciplinary trial began Monday for the New York City police officer accused of using a banned chokehold in the July 2014 death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man whose pleas of "I can't breathe" became a rallying cry against police brutality.
Garner's sister left a New York City courtroom wailing as a cellphone video was played showing the arrest that led to his death. Garner's mother also left in tears Monday. The video was played as the man who took it testified at the disciplinary hearing for officer Daniel Pantaleo.
Pantaleo could face penalties ranging from the loss of vacation days to firing if he's found to have violated department rules. He denies wrongdoing. A grand jury has declined to indict Pantaleo on criminal charges.
Garner, a father of six, had been arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes numerous times and was suspected of doing the same when officers approached him, police said. Garner, who had asthma, suffered a heart attack in an ambulance and was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Ramsey Orta, the man who took the cellphone video, testified via video link from prison, where he is serving time on gun and drug charges, reports CBS New York. Orta testified there was a fight moments before the video began that Garner had broken up, and that's when police arrived, the station reports.
"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. "He gave his victim a death sentence over loose cigarettes."
Fogel said Pantaleo applied pressure on Garner's neck for 15 seconds, calling it a "lethal dose of deadly force."
"A chokehold set off a domino effect that led to cardiac arrest that led to his death," Fogel added. "It is an outrage that Eric Garner is not alive today. He was given a death sentence for loosies."
But in his opening statement, Pantaleo's attorney offered up a starkly different version of events.
"'I'm tired of it. It stops today and it's done,'" Stuart London said, repeating words Garner said to responding officers as he was being arrested. London said that was the beginning of Garner resisting arrest.
London said Pantaleo exercised tremendous restraint, and that it was more than 10 minutes before any officer put a hand on Garner. London said Pantaleo didn't use a chokehold, which is banned, but an academy-taught "seatbelt technique," a takedown that he claimed was misrepresented in the autopsy report as a chokehold. He said Garner's chronic asthma made him a "ticking time bomb" who set things in motion by resisting arrest.
"Had he accepted the summons, he would be here today," London said.
London said Garner jerked Pantaleo towards a plate glass window, and disputed what happened when Garner was on the ground.
London said the fact that Garner was saying "I can't breathe" shows he wasn't choked because he was speaking. London said it's a misconception that the phrase was uttered when the officer's hands were around Garner's neck. He said it happened when officers were trying to handcuff Garner.
"He was not squeezing his neck. He was trying to control him to cuff him," London said. "There's no evidence he was applying pressure to his neck."
Pantaleo has been on desk duty since Garner's death. He has remained on the city payroll, stripped of his gun and badge but pulling in a salary peaking at more than $120,000 in 2017, according to city payroll records.
The city paid Garner's family $5.9 million in 2015 to settle a wrongful death claim.
Use of force complaints against the NYPD have fallen sharply in the years since Garner's death, according to data compiled by the review board. In 2014, there were 2,412. In 2018, there were 1,764, marking a 27% drop. But alleged chokeholds have still been a problem. Last year, the review board reported receiving 133 chokehold complaints. So far in 2019, there have been 39.
The NYPD hasn't fired an officer for a fatal chokehold since Francis Livoti, who was dismissed from the department and convicted by a federal jury for violating the civil rights of a Bronx man prosecutors say died after Livoti used a chokehold on him in 1994.
A few weeks after Garner's death, 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. A few months after that, officers in Cleveland fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Other confrontations followed between police officers and people of color, sparking tensions, calls for reform and nationwide protests.
Earlier Monday, protesters calling for the officer's firing shut down Manhattan's busy FDR drive, causing backups during the morning rush hour.
Speaking Monday to a group of supporters calling for Pantaleo's termination, Garner's mother Gwen Carr 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."