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Updated: May 15, 2019, 1:40 PM

New York medical examiner testifies chokehold led to Eric Garner's death

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York City medical examiner who conducted an autopsy on an unarmed black man who died during an attempted arrest in 2014 told a hearing that the policeman who subdued the suspect used a chokehold that triggered the “lethal cascade” that killed him.

Cellphone videos taken by bystanders show Officer Daniel Pantaleo putting his arm around the neck of Eric Garner as he attempted to arrest him on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes on a sidewalk in the city’s Staten Island borough.

The New York Police Department, which is conducting a hearing for Pantaleo that could lead to his dismissal, nearly five years after Garner’s death, has banned its officers from using chokeholds for decades, saying the maneuver is too risky.

“In my opinion, that’s a chokehold,” Floriana Persechino, the medical examiner who wrote the autopsy report told the hearing, referring to cellphone video footage of the encounter. She said the chokehold triggered “a lethal cascade of events” that led to Garner’s death.

Using a green laser pointer, she pointed to autopsy photographs showing ruptured blood vessels in Garner’s neck, saying they were caused by the chokehold.

The video footage of the attempted arrest sparked a national outcry over policing tactics used against black men, and Garner’s dying refrain of “I can’t breathe!” became a rallying cry in the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In hearings this week at the New York Police Department’s headquarters in Manhattan, Pantaleo’s lawyers have argued that he did not use a chokehold in restraining Garner while arresting him and that the officer did not cause Garner’s death.

A summary of the autopsy shared with reporters in 2014 ruled that the cause of death was: “Compression of neck (choke hold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.”

It also said that Garner’s asthma, obesity and high blood pressure were “contributing conditions.” Garner was 43 when he died.

In this week’s hearings, several of Pantaleo’s colleagues, including investigators in the police department’s Internal Affairs Bureau and an officer who oversees cadet training, say the videos show Pantaleo used a chokehold.

Prosecutors from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a city agency with some oversight over the NYPD, has said Pantaleo, who has been on desk duty, should be fired. The ultimate decision will be made by Police Commissioner James O’Neill after the hearing.

Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Bill Berkrot