Officer in ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Death Is Scapegoat, Lawyer Says

NEW YORK (AP) -
New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo, May 13, 2019, in Staten Island, N.Y. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

The New York City police officer accused of using a banned chokehold in the July 2014 death of Eric Garner is being made a scapegoat in a politically charged atmosphere, a defense lawyer said Monday.

Video evidence shows Officer Daniel Pantaleo used an approved technique for restraining Garner, attorney Stuart London said at the officer’s disciplinary hearing, adding that the officer feared for his life when he felt Garner was trying to push him toward a plate glass window.

Garner was the unarmed black man whose pleas of “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry against police brutality.

However, London said, it’s a misconception that the phrase was uttered when the officer’s hands were around Garner’s neck. It happened, he said, when officers were trying to handcuff Garner.

“We know he wasn’t choked out because he is speaking,” London said.

Garner’s mother and sister left the hearing room in tears as video was played of the arrest that led to his death.

The video was played as the man who took it, Ramsey Orta, testified from prison, where he is serving time for drug and weapon charges.

During cross-examination, Orta said Pantaleo’s arm wasn’t around Garner’s neck when he uttered, “I can’t breathe.”

Orta also backed off a claim he had made to internal affairs investigators two days after Garner’s death that Pantaleo had his knee on Garner’s back for five to 10 seconds. The video showed it was not on his back.

Pantaleo could face penalties ranging from the loss of vacation days to firing if he is found to have violated department rules. He denies wrongdoing.

A ruling last week requires that the police watchdog agency bringing the case prove not only that Pantaleo violated department rules, but also that his actions fit the criteria for criminal charges. Pantaleo does not face criminal charges.

He has been on desk duty since Garner’s death.