AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Five years after Eric Garner died in an altercation with New York City Police, a disciplinary trial began today for the officer accused in his death. Officer Daniel Pantaleo was never charged criminally. This trial will determine whether he used a chokehold banned by the NYPD decades ago to cause Garner's death. If Pantaleo is found guilty, he could lose his job.
Cindy Rodriguez from member station WNYC is covering the trial. She is here to discuss how day one went. And just a warning - we'll be discussing the actions that led to Garner's death in some detail. Cindy, how did the prosecution lay out its case today?
CINDY RODRIGUEZ, BYLINE: Well, Audie, prosecutors had to prove that Officer Pantaleo used a chokehold and, by doing so, that he acted recklessly. And they also had to prove that he intended to restrict Garner's breathing. So during opening statements, prosecutor Jonathan Fogel said that Eric Garner didn't pose a threat to the public or to the officers. He pointed out that Garner was unarmed, that there was no urgency to the situation, that he was selling loose cigarettes, which is a misdemeanor. Backup was on the way, and Pantaleo could have waited, but instead he used a chokehold in what he called an act of brutal lethal force. And he accused Pantaleo of locking his fingers together to intentionally squeeze Garner's throat and restrict his breathing. Fogel called it a death sentence over loose cigarettes.
CORNISH: Officer Pantaleo's defense attorneys have been trying to make the argument that the officer used a seatbelt maneuver - it's called - rather than a chokehold.
CORNISH: And that's a maneuver apparently that's been approved by the NYPD. Can you explain what a seatbelt maneuver is and how it came up in court today?
RODRIGUEZ: Right, so his lawyer said that Pantaleo used a maneuver by which you grab a suspect from behind. And you put one arm under his armpit and the other arm over his shoulder and across his chest, and then you clasp your hands together and throw the suspect off balance so he falls down. The defense attorney said that's what Pantaleo did, and the only reason his forearm went near Mr. Garner's neck was because of Mr. Garner's large size.
Now, here's the head of the police union, Patrick Lynch. You're going to hear protesters trying to shout over him. But Lynch is trying to point out the timing of Garner's last words, I can't breathe.
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PATRICK LYNCH: Mr. Garner never said he could not breathe while any arm was near his neck. What we saw is a legal, trained seatbelt maneuver.
CORNISH: And of course that chanting in the background - I believe they're saying fire Pantaleo. So obviously emotions are still running high in the community. I mean, how did this play out...
CORNISH: ...In the courtroom?
RODRIGUEZ: Definitely. So today was a very emotional day for the Garner family. When the viral video of the altercation was played, Garner's mother walked out, and his sister sobbed and had to be escorted out. And then outside the trial room, Gwen Carr, Garner's mother, spoke underneath a steady rainfall.
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GWEN CARR: These are just tears from heaven. Eric is crying from heaven 'cause he see his mother and his family out here still trying to fight for justice for him.
RODRIGUEZ: So, Audie, the trial is scheduled to last through next week. And the Garner family says they'll be there every day.
CORNISH: That's WNYC's Cindy Rodriguez. Thanks.
RODRIGUEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.