The medical examiner who performed an autopsy on Eric Garner testified Wednesday that a police officer's chokehold set into motion "a lethal sequence of events," but she said even a bear hug could've hastened his death given Garner's fragile health.
Hemorrhaging in Garner's neck muscles was indicative of a chokehold that set off an asthma attack and led to him going into cardiac arrest following a confrontation with New York City police officers in July 2014, Dr. Floriana Persechino said.
She testified at the disciplinary hearing for Officer Daniel Pantaleo, narrating along at times with graphic autopsy photos that have never previously been seen in a public forum.
Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, heeded a warning from the administrative judge and left the hearing room before they were shown.
Persechino said a bystander's video of the confrontation only helped confirm her findings that the officer had wrapped his arm around Garner's neck, obstructing his breathing. The NYPD banned chokeholds in the 1990s because they can be deadly.
Persechino testified Garner weighed 395 pounds at the time of his July 2014 death. He suffered from asthma, diabetes and had a heart nearly double the size of a person in good health. Nonetheless, she said, he didn't appear in distress when seen on security video crossing a street about an hour before Pantaleo grabbed him.
Pantaleo's lawyer, Stuart London, focused on Garner's health as he cross-examined Persechino.
A report from the NYPD's top doctor concluded Garner was "predisposed to morbidity and mortality" and that his death was "brought on by a heated argument followed by a physical struggle," London said.
The NYPD doctor, Eli Kleinman, did not personally examine Garner's body, relying instead on the autopsy and video of the confrontation, London said. Kleinman will testify later in the trial that he concluded Pantaleo did not use a chokehold to restrain Garner, London said.
London argued Garner could've saved himself had he acquiesced to being arrested after officers said they suspected him of selling untaxed loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street corner. Before Pantaleo grabbed him, Garner is seen on video arguing with the officers, protesting what he considered constant harassment.
The NYPD's disciplinary process plays out like a trial in front of an administrative judge. Normally the purpose is to determine whether an officer violated department rules, but that's only if disciplinary charges are filed within 18 months of an incident.
Because Pantaleo's case languished, the watchdog Civilian Complaint Review Board must show that his actions rose to the level of criminal conduct, even though he faces no criminal charges and is being tried in a department tribunal, not a criminal court.
The final decision on any punishment lies with the police commissioner. Penalties range from the loss of vacation days to firing.
Pantaleo, 33, denies wrongdoing. He has been on desk duty since Garner's death.