The defense team for Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner almost five years ago, is arguing that their client should be exonerated because Garner was obese and probably would have died anyway. “He died from being morbidly obese,” Stuart London, the police union attorney leading the team, said during a recent administrative hearing, according to the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery. “He was a ticking time bomb that resisted arrest. If he was put in a bear hug, it would have been the same outcome.”
Garner was not placed in a bear hug, but what medical examiners described as a “chokehold” that compressed his throat and chest and triggered an asthma attack. The fatal incident — which occurred on July 17, 2014, when a group of police officers tried to arrest the 43-year-old black man on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes on Staten Island — prompted the acceleration of the Black Lives Matter movement and led to several protests locally and nationally.
London’s remarks were part of an opening statement that kicked off seven days of administrative proceedings that have unfolded at NYPD headquarters over the past month. At issue in the hearings is whether Pantaleo will lose his job — a dim prospect, considering that, in order to fire him, NYPD rules require proof that he both used a chokehold forbidden by department policy and did so in a manner that constituted criminal conduct, according to the Post.
So far, Pantaleo has evaded both administrative and legal consequences for killing Garner, save for being placed on desk duty. Local prosecutors declined to charge him with a crime, and a potential civil-rights case against him stalled amid disagreements between federal and local prosecutors and the FBI about the case’s merits.
Pantaleo’s defense team has claimed consistently that Garner was responsible for his own death. Were he not overweight and asthmatic, they argue, he would have survived the violence to which he was subjected. While it may seem odd to suggest that a victim’s physical health should be used to exonerate someone who choked and killed him, it is consistent with the logic applied to many cases where police skate for killing unarmed civilians — many of which hinge on how the victims might have prevented themselves from dying in the first place, whether by maintaining better physical fitness, as in Garner’s case, or appearing less scary to police, as in the cases of Michael Brown, Terence Crutcher, and others.
It is notoriously difficult to convict officers for crimes under such circumstances. According to CNN, citing data collected by Bowling Green University criminal-justice professor Philip Stinson, who tracks police misconduct convictions, 80 officers nationwide were charged with murder or manslaughter for killing someone while on duty between 2005 and 2017. Just 35 percent of them were convicted — a rate of roughly two per year — and several of the most flagrant instances of unaccountability inspired protests and riots. Whether Pantaleo loses his job will be determined by NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill, acting on the private recommendation of a deputy commissioner. The decision — and possible affirmation of the defense team’s argument that Garner basically killed himself — is expected this summer.