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New York policeman tried five years after black man's death

3 min

New York (AFP)

Five years after an African American father of six died after being apparently held in an illegal police chokehold, a video of which triggered the Black Lives Matter Movement, a disciplinary trial of the policeman accused of killing him got underway Monday in New York.

"I Can't Breathe! I Can't Breathe!" Eric Garner cried out with his last breaths as five police officers tried to handcuff him. This was caught in a video shot by a friend that was viewed around the world.

The 43-year-old, who was unarmed and accused of illegally selling cigarettes, died minutes later. His death, listed as a homicide by the medical examiner, triggered the Black Lives Movement denouncing police violence against unarmed African American men.

His death in July 2014 was the first of a wave of high-profile, racially charged incidents in the United States in which officers have been accused of using unreasonable force or being too quick to fire at black suspects.

For years, New York police held back from proceedings to try Daniel Pantaleo -- the officer who appeared to hold Garner in a chokehold -- on the grounds that they had to wait until a federal civil rights investigation first ended.

The federal case has yet to produce its conclusions. Although he has been restricted to administrative duties, Pantaleo is still a member of New York police.

- Was it intentional? -

The police department finally launched its disciplinary proceedings, which led to the trial, set to end May 24.

A dozen protesters gathered in front of police headquarters as the first hearing began, demanding that Pantaleo be fired -- the harshest punishment possible.

"It's been five years. Five years we've been on the frontlines trying to get justice and they're still trying to sweep it under the rug," Garner's mother Gwen Carr said on the sidelines of the hearing, referring to the ultimately failed efforts by the policeman's lawyers to have the hearing scrapped.

"We've seen the video, we've all seen him being murdered... and they're still playing games."

The proceedings aim to determine whether the officer did in fact place Garner in a chokehold, a technique that the New York Police Department has banned since 1993.

"Right from the get go he went for his neck," said Jonathan Fogel, a representative of the plaintiffs led by the Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent body that reviews claims against police.

The video shows Pantaleo apparently holding his forearm against Garner's throat for a little more than 15 seconds, at one point clasping both his hands to maintain his hold.

"It was intentional," Fogel said, calling on Rosemarie Maldonado, the deputy commissioner presiding over the trial, to provide "some measure of justice" and hold Pantaleo "accountable."

Pantaleo's lawyer Stuart London insisted that his client "just did his job" and that "the result would have been the same if he had not touched his neck at all" since Garner was already in poor health, suffering from asthma and obesity.

London also insisted that Garner only began complaining he could not breathe after Pantaleo let go.

In 2015, Garner's family reached a settlement with New York, which agreed to pay $5.9 million in damages.

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