Poor health and obesity sent Eric Garner to an early grave, NYPD police union attorneys argued at a hearing last week.
Lawyers representing New York Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who’s accused of placing Garner, 43, in a department-banned chokehold that resulted in his death, claimed the victim’s weight was primarily to blame for his demise — despite the officer constricting Garner’s airways during a July 2014 arrest.
Pantaleo used the maneuver on the father of six while arresting him on charges of peddling loose, untaxed cigarettes in Staten Island. Video from the incident captured Garner repeatedly telling police “I can’t breathe,” a phrase that would become a rallying cry for social justice movement Black Lives Matter.
Stuart London, a police union attorney leading Pantaleo’s defense, has denied that the officer ever used a chokehold and attempted to shift blame by bringing up the 395-pound man’s failing health.
“He died from being morbidly obese,” London told the court, eliciting gasps and head shakes of disbelief, according to The Washington Post. “He was a ticking time bomb that resisted arrest. If he was put in a bear hug, it would have been the same outcome.”
The remarks came during a week-long disciplinary hearing to determine if Pantaleo, 33, should be punished for his actions five years ago. He’s currently facing administrative charges of reckless use of force and strangulation in the incident.
Garner suffered a heart attack after his struggle with police and later died. An autopsy by the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office determined the chokehold, along with Garner’s poor health — asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes — had contributed to his death.
That same medical examiner took the stand last month and said the banned maneuver “set into motion a lethal sequence” that led to Garner’s demise.
A grand jury declined to convict Pantaleo, who has been on desk duty since the incident, despite video evidence of the encounter. A civil rights inquiry was launched in the case, but no charges have been filed.
The statute of limitations expires in July, on the five year anniversary of Garner’s arrest. If found guilty on the administrative charges, Pantaleo faces punishment from loss of vacation days to the loss of his job entirely.
“Mr. Garner is dead because Daniel Pantaleo used a strictly prohibited chokehold,” said Jonathan Fogel, an attorney with the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which brought the case against Pantaleo. “There were three other officers there that didn’t use a chokehold. This officer didn’t let go even after Mr. Garner fell to the ground.”
Last month, an NYPD officer involved in the struggle with Garner admitted to inflating the charges against the Staten Island man, claiming Garner was in possession of 10,000 untaxed cigarettes — the equivalent of 50 cartons — when in reality he had fewer than 100.
The cop also testified he’d assumed that Garner was faking unresponsiveness, or “playing possum,” in effort to avoid being arrested.
In 2015, the city awarded Garner’s family a $5.9 million wrongful death settlement.