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New York police weigh officer's conduct in 2014 'I can't breathe' death

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The disciplinary trial of the New York City policeman who fatally choked an unarmed black suspect in 2014 opened on Monday with the officer’s lawyer shredding a copy of the autopsy report that concluded the man, Eric Garner, was killed by a chokehold.

Gwen Carr, Eric Gardner's mother speaks to the media during a break at the disciplinary trial of police officer Daniel Pantaleo in relation to the death of Eric Garner at 1 Police Plaza in the Manhattan borough of New York, New York, U.S., May 13, 2019. REUTERS/David 'Dee' Delgado

The trial of the white officer, Daniel Pantaleo, comes nearly five years after widely seen video of Garner’s death sparked a national outcry about the treatment of black suspects by law enforcement. The clips, recorded on the cellphones of bystanders, showed Garner saying “I can’t breathe” 11 times before he died.

In the first day of the trial, Stuart London, one of Pantaleo’s lawyers, dramatically tore up a copy of the official autopsy report by the chief medical examiner’s office. It ruled that Garner was killed in part by a chokehold compressing his neck. The New York Police Department has banned its officers from using chokeholds for decades.

“The evidence will show that the ultimate autopsy was wrong,” London said, at times saying the officer used a “neck hold” rather than a chokehold. “Officer Pantaleo was justified in using physical force to make this arrest,” he said, noting that Garner can be seen in video shouting and arguing with the officers trying to arrest him.

Garner, who was 43, died after he argued with officers trying to arrest him on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes in front of a shop on the New York City borough of Staten Island.

“His last words, ‘I can’t breathe,’ tell you who caused his death,” Jonathan Fogel, a prosecutor for the Civilian Complaint Review Board, said during opening statements.

The phrase became a rallying cry in the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, formed to end the disproportionate use of deadly force against nonwhite people by U.S. police departments.

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Pantaleo, 33, who has been assigned to a desk job since the deadly encounter, could lose his job after the conclusion of a trial at the New York Police Department’s Manhattan headquarters, which is expected to last 10 days. The ultimate decision will rest with Police Commissioner James O’Neill.

Fogel said Pantaleo “gave his victim a death sentence over loose cigarettes because he disregarded his training.”

A grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against Pantaleo later in 2014, prompting the U.S. Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation into the death. Garner’s family has criticized that investigation as it has stretched into its fourth year without resolution.

The city’s Civilian Complaints Review Board, which prosecutes certain violations of police rules, determined in 2017 that Pantaleo used excessive force.

London blamed Garner’s death on paramedics, who he said did “almost nothing” once they arrived, and on Garner’s health problems, including hypertension and asthma.

The trial is being closely watched by civil rights activists who say few police officers face consequences for using deadly force. Meanwhile, New York’s powerful police officers’ union and others have defended Panteleo and other officers who they say have to make instant decisions while doing a dangerous job.

Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, started loudly sobbing as the footage of her son’s final moments was played at the opening of the trial. She left the room with a tissue over her mouth, accompanied by civil rights activist Al Sharpton.

London said Pantaleo did not use a chokehold, but rather a “seat belt” maneuver that goes around the torso. The hold slipped into what London called a “neck hold” because of Garner’s size. Garner was considered medically obese at 400 pounds (181 kg).

The police department’s internal affairs bureau determined that Pantaleo used a chokehold and referred the finding in January 2015 to the department’s advocate’s office, an investigator testified during the hearing.

Fogel said that a doctor with the medical examiner’s office will testify during the trial that there was hemorrhaging and trauma to the muscles in Garner’s neck and will show some two dozen autopsy photos that illustrate his injuries.

Reporting by Jonathan Allen, additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis