It's been more than four years since a shocking viral video documented the death of 43-year-old Staten Island man Eric Garner. On Thursday, Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer accused of using an illegal chokehold to take Garner down, appeared before an administrative judge who said the officer’s disciplinary trial would begin May 13th, 2019. It’s expected to last 10 days. Pantaleo’s punishment could range from losing vacation days to being fired.
The judge, Deputy Commissioner of Trials Rosemarie Maldonado, is an NYPD employee appointed by former Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. The prosecutors are lawyers for the Civilian Complaint Review Board [CCRB], the watchdog agency that investigates complaints against police officers.
The brief hearing took place inside a small courtroom at police headquarters in Lower Manhattan. The hearings are open to the public, and reporters filled a back row. Gwen Carr, Eric Garner's mother, sat in the front row, two seats from Patrick Lynch, President of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, and several of its members. It was the first time Carr was in the same room as Pantaleo.
During a press conference outside police headquarters, Carr expressed gratitude for the different groups who attended in a show of support.
“You know the family is in pain; it's been four-and-a-half years with no justice,” she said. “And just to have the amazing groups that have stood with me throughout this all, I just can't explain how I feel.”
Carr was joined by activists like the Reverend Al Sharpton, who said the Garner family has waited patiently for a long time.
“They’ve done it without bringing any acrimony and venom to this city,” Sharpton said. “The city owes them justice.”
Garner’s death and the video that showed him gasping for air while repeating the words, “I can’t breathe,” sparked widespread outrage and was a catalyst for the Black Lives Matter protest movement.
Pantaleo has been on desk duty since Garner’s death. He did not speak during the hearing and was barely visible. But his lawyer, Stu London, objected to a trial starting any earlier than the summer. He argued too many issues remained unresolved, including a lawsuit filed by the CCRB. The agency sued for access to minutes from a Staten Island grand jury that declined to indict Pantaleo in December of 2014. The case is still pending.
London also argued that the trial should be postponed until mid-July, after the statute of limitations runs out for federal prosecutors who have not said whether the Department of Justice would prosecute officer Pantaleo or not. The judge rejected London’s arguments.
Pantaleo has been charged with reckless use of force by using a chokehold and intentional use of a chokehold. London said the case would include more than 40,000 documents submitted as evidence including autopsy reports and Garner's medical records from prior hospitalizations. The defense attorney said he intends to prove that Garner was not choked to death.
“The medical evidence in this case has been misconstrued and inaccurate from the beginning,” London said. “Let’s start with the fact that number one there were no external bruises on the neck. Let’s now go to number two, the hyoid bone, which is the most sensitive bone in the neck, was intact.”
The death was ruled a homicide by the city’s medical examiner due to neck compression and the compression of Garner's chest when he was on the ground in a prone position.
Speaking outside police headquarters, Lynch called the process “rushed”.
“This is pure politics and pressure from noise on the outside of this building,” Lynch said. “We need to slow down. Let the evidence speak for itself. And allow this police officer to go on with his career.”
Protesters chanted over both London and Lynch as they spoke.
In a disciplinary trial, the CCRB puts forth their recommendation for punishment. The judge then decides whether the officer is guilty or not. But NYPD Commissioner James O'Neill ultimately has the final say and will decide whether he agrees with the verdict. He also has the authority to decide whether to punish Pantaleo or not.
Carr believes punishment needs to extend beyond Pantaleo.
“Justice would look like whenever who was involved in my son's murder that day stands accountable and loses their job,” she said. In an earlier interview with WNYC in her home, Carr said, "We know we can't save Eric, because he's gone, but there are other lives that have to be saved."
For more, listen to Cindy Rodriguez's segment on WNYC: