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Chokehold triggered Eric Garner's fatal asthma attack, medical examiner says

NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo could be fired if found guilty in a departmental trial of using the banned hold to take down the Staten Island man in the infamous altercation.

NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo on Monday.

NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo on Monday. Photo Credit: AP/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez

A “lethal cascade,” starting with a chokehold and chest compression, set in motion medical events that led to the death of Eric Garner after NYPD officers forcibly arrested the Staten Island man in July 2014, a city medical examiner said Wednesday.

Testifying at the NYPD departmental trial of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, Dr. Floriana Persechino, a senior medical examiner for the city, said his use of the chokehold during the arrest triggered an asthma attack that eventually killed Garner.

“With the asthma attack, [Garner] was no longer able to breathe,” Persechino said.

Pantaleo, among several officers involved in the July 17, 2014, arrest on Staten Island of Garner, 43,  on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes, faces administrative charges of reckless assault in the third degree and intentional strangulation. He is being tried in the NYPD headquarters trial room by attorneys with the Civilian Complaint Review Board before department law judge Rosemarie Maldonado.

If Pantaleo is found guilty, Police Commissioner James O’Neill could fire him, or levy a lesser penalty. 

Cellphone video captured officers struggling to subdue the 395-pound Garner before forcing him to the ground. As Pantaleo and other officers held Garner down, he uttered the words nearly a dozen times that would become a rallying cry for activists nationwide protesting police abuse: “I can’t breathe!”

A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, 33, in late 2014 for Garner’s death. The officer is on modified assignment and was in the courtroom Wednesday.

During Persechino’s testimony, Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, and a number of friends left the courtroom as review board attorney Suzanne O'Hare asked the medical examiner about autopsy photographs. 

Before she  performed Garner's autopsy, Persechino said, she watched the amateur video depicting Pantaleo moving his left forearm to the area of the man's neck. The officer's use of a chokehold was a “significant factor” in Garner's death, she said.

The medical examiner, who said she has done between 3,000 to 4,000 autopsies in her career, acknowledged that Garner’s obesity, his asthma, hypertension and enlarged heart appeared to have been contributing factors in his death. She also said Garner didn’t die from strangulation cutting off his oxygen supply. All of Garner’s existing medical conditions were part of the lethal cascade that killed him, Persechino said.

Under cross examination by defense attorney Stuart London, Persechino admitted that Garner didn’t die from the chokehold or asphyxiation. 

The NYPD banned the chokehold — defined as the use of the forearm to apply pressure to a person’s neck - years before Garner's death. Pantaleo’s attorneys contend he didn’t use a chokehold, but a permissible arm “seat belt” hold.

Persechino told London she agreed with many of the findings of chief NYPD surgeon Dr. Eli Klieman, who said Garner died from cardiopulmonary arrest brought about by his excitement, an adrenal surge, and diminished respiratory and cardiac output.

Outside the headquarters building, Gwen Carr told reporters that suggestions her son contributed to his own death  were “twisted.”

“The medical examiner, she clearly said it was a chokehold,” Carr said. 

London told reporters that Garner’s physical condition caused his death.

“The cascade only began because he resisted arrest,” London said. “He was an individual whose own physicality caused his demise.”

The trial continues Thursday with defense witnesses.


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