On day four in the disciplinary trial of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, text messages between his supervisors on the day Eric Garner died sparked outrage in the trial room.
Pantaleo is accused of using an illegal chokehold while trying to arrest Garner for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes.
As Garner lay dying on that July day in 2014, Sergeant Dharan Saminath texted his boss, Lt. Christopher Bannon. Saminath had been at the scene of the altercation on Bay Street in the Tompkinsville section of Staten Island.
“Danny [Pantaleo] and Justin went to collar Eric Garner and he resisted,” Saminath wrote. “He went into cardiac arrest and is unconscious. Might be DOA.”
Bannon wrote back, “For the smokes?”
“Yeah they observed him selling,” Saminath texted. “Danny tried to grab him and they both fell down. He’s most likely DOA.”
“Not a big deal. We were affecting a lawful arrest,” Bannon responded.
Prosecutors put the texts on a video screen inside the trial room and Bannon read them out loud. There were gasps in the courtroom, an objection from Pantaleo's lawyer, and an outcry from Garner's family. Administrative Judge Rosemarie Maldonado called for order.
Outside, community activist Loyda Colon, co-director of the Justice Committee, reflected the emotion inside the trial room.
“It's a big deal to his family because Eric Garner's life mattered to his family,” Colon said. “Eric Garner's life matters to us and Eric Garner's life mattered to the millions of people who took to the streets in 2014 demanding justice for Eric Garner.”
Garner’s death sparked massive protests after a viral video showed him gasping for air and repeating the words “I can’t breathe” eleven times. A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo. Federal prosecutors also convened a grand jury but still haven’t said what the outcome was.
After the uproar, Bannon testified that he wasn’t trying to be malicious and only wanted to ease the mind of the officers involved. Outside the courtroom, Patrick Lynch, the head of the police union, said Bannon knew officers would be worried that they would get blamed.
“What that boss was doing is having everyone take a deep breath, calm down,” he said. “We'll do this step by step.”
Thursday was the first time the public has heard an account of what happened that day from officers who were directly involved. They were called to testify by Pantaleo's attorneys.
Bannon testified that the incident began when he was on his way to a meeting and noticed a group of six men as he drove past Tompkinsville Park.
He was too far away to see who the men were or what they were doing.
But he was on notice from his superiors to do something to address the sale of illegal cigarettes. So he called Saminath and told him to get someone there. Saminath dispatched two plainclothes officers from the 120th precinct. One of them was Daniel Pantaleo, who was finishing up his lunch at the time. No one mentioned Garner by name.
Lynch said the testimony proved that the confrontation wasn't Pantaleo's fault, and that he was following orders.
“The order to go out to enforce those laws came from this building,” Lynch said, standing in front of police headquarters. “Nonetheless, officer Panteleo is the one that’s on trial.”
Under cross examination by prosecutors, Saminath testified that when he arrived at the scene, Garner “appeared not to be conscious.” He said he told Pantaleo's partner, Justin D’Amico, to search Garner. They found cigarettes, and after D’Amico got back to the precinct, he processed the paperwork and the precinct got credit for the arrest. It was unclear whether Garner had already been pronounced dead.
Gwen Carr, Garner's mother said it was business as usual.
“They do not think of us New Yorkers as human beings, especially not the black and the brown,” Garner said. “And this we have to stop because we are all citizens and we are all human beings and we should be treated as such.”
The trial is expected to last through next week. D’Amico, who was Pantaleo’s partner on the day Garner was killed, is expected to testify on Tuesday.