The city’s Chief Medical Examiner has rebutted a Dec. 6 claim from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association that Eric Garner’s autopsy report proves that the Staten Island man did not die of strangulation after he was held from behind by an NYPD Police Officer four years ago.
Just prior to an NYPD administrative proceeding that set May trial dates for Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who is accused of using a chokehold in trying to arrest Mr. Garner, the PBA issued a statement saying that the autopsy report, previously unavailable to the officer’s lawyers, “demonstrates conclusively that Mr. Garner did not die of strangulation of the neck from a chokehold.”
The PBA’s statement claimed that while a chokehold, which is banned by the NYPD, would have crushed Mr. Garner’s windpipe and fractured the hyoid bone at the top of the neck, “The report notes that Mr. Garner’s windpipe and Hyoid bone were both intact.”
In an interview, a PBA spokesman, Albert O’Leary, said the report amounts to “essentially scientific proof that Eric Garner was not choked to death.”
Officer Pantaleo, he said, “didn’t apply any pressure” but instead used a so-called seatbelt maneuver to get leverage on Mr. Garner, who had resisted arrest by brushing off Officer Pantaleo's hand when he tried to handcuff him, and take him to the ground.
Chief Medical Examiner Barbara Sampson, though, refuted that assessment.
"It is false that crushing of the windpipe and fracture of the hyoid bone would necessarily be seen at autopsy as the result of a chokehold,” she said in a statement.
A spokeswoman from the office said the ME’s initial conclusions on what caused Mr. Garner death were unchanged. "The Chief Medical Examiner stands by the original forensic investigation and determination which found Mr. Garner died from injuries including neck compression,” the spokeswoman, Aja Worthy-Davis, said in a statement.
Extended Desk Duty
Officer Pantaleo, who is on desk duty in Staten Island, was one of several officers who approached Mr. Garner, a 43-year-old petty criminal with 30 previous arrests, on July 17, 2014, to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes after local shopkeepers complained. Mr. Garner, saying he was not doing anything wrong, did not cooperate with the officers and resisted efforts to handcuff him.
In a widely circulated video of the incident, Officer Pantaleo is seen grabbing Mr. Garner around the neck, pulling him to the ground, then pushing his face into the pavement as Mr. Garner several times says, "I can't breathe."
He was taken to a nearby hospital emergency room but died shortly afterward. About two weeks later, the Office of Chief Medical Examiner said his death was caused by “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” The ME’s Office said acute and chronic bronchial asthma, obesity and high blood pressure were contributing factors.
The autopsy report was given to Officer Pantaleo’s lawyers as part of the trial’s discovery phase. It had not been previously available to his lawyers, in part, Mr. O’Leary said, because an anticipated civil suit—at which the autopsy report would very likely have been introduced as evidence—by Mr. Garner’s family was headed off by a $6-million settlement from the city.
“This case demonstrates the danger that is inherent in pre-judging incidents absent all of the information that must be considered in order to come to a truthful and accurate conclusion,” PBA President Patrick J. Lynch said in the statement.
While he called Mr. Garner’s death “tragic,” Mr. Lynch said “a false narrative” has clouded the facts now made clearer by the autopsy report.
“Sadly, Mr. Garner’s health was so poor that it is highly likely that if he had decided to flee police instead of fighting them, the end result would have been the same,” he said in the statement. “The exertion and stress would have overcome his already seriously ill body and would have resulted in his death. “
Mr. Pantaleo’s disciplinary trial is set to begin May 13 and last several days. It will be prosecuted by lawyers from the independent Civilian Complaint Review Board.
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