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June 5, 2019, 5:50 PM

Defense Medical Examiner Offers Alternate Theory in Eric Garner’s Death

Testimony on behalf of police officer cites health issue and not chokehold; New York City medical examiner had ruled death a homicide

By Ben Chapman

Medical issues killed Eric Garner and not a chokehold applied by New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo, according to a medical examiner who testified on behalf of Officer Pantaleo, who faces disciplinary charges over the 2014 death.

Dr. Michael Graham, the chief medical examiner for the city of St. Louis, testified Wednesday before a packed courtroom in the administrative trial against Officer Pantaleo, who is accused of recklessly using force by chokehold and intentional strangulation in connection with Mr. Garner’s death in Staten Island.

The trial is an internal police department disciplinary proceeding, prosecuted by lawyers from the Civilian Complaint Review Board and held at NYPD headquarters in Manhattan.

Defense attorneys for Officer Pantaleo say Mr. Garner was selling untaxed cigarettes illegally on Bay Street when he was placed under arrest.

Prosecutors allege that Officer Pantaleo used a prohibited chokehold to subdue Mr. Garner and bring him to the ground. Officer Pantaleo’s defense team has denied he used a chokehold.

A video of Mr. Garner’s arrest shows him repeating “I can’t breathe” 11 times as he is being restrained by multiple officers, including Officer Pantaleo. Mr. Garner went into cardiac arrest minutes later and never regained consciousness.

A New York City medical examiner ruled Mr. Garner’s death a homicide. His death prompted protests across the U.S. over issues of race and police tactics.

But Dr. Graham, a medical expert who previously served as president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, said Mr. Garner died as a result of heart problems and not from choking by Officer Pantaleo.

“I think it was his heart disease that was exacerbated by his interaction with law enforcement,” Dr. Graham testified.

Dr. Graham, who was hired by Officer Pantaleo’s defense team, said Mr. Garner was morbidly obese at the time of his death at age 43. Mr. Garner, who was 6-foot-3, weighed 350 pounds.

Autopsy records showed that Mr. Garner suffered from an enlarged heart, probably caused by high blood pressure, Dr. Graham said.

The medical examiner said the stress of Mr. Garner’s arrest might have contributed to a heart failure that killed him, but he ruled out choking as a cause of death.

“I don’t see anywhere in here that he was unable to move air,” Dr. Graham said, after reviewing in court videos of Mr. Garner’s arrest and photos of his autopsy.

Mr. Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, who attended Wednesday’s hearing, called Officer Pantaleo’s administrative trial a “kangaroo court.”

In 2014, a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Officer Pantaleo on criminal charges related to Mr. Garner’s death. A federal civil-rights probe into the matter was opened shortly afterward.

Following the trial’s conclusion, expected Thursday, an NYPD judge will make a recommendation to Police Commissioner James O’Neill, who will decide whether Officer Pantaleo remains on the force.