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NEW YORK (AP) — A deadline in a federal civil rights probe loomed large on Wednesday at a disciplinary hearing for a New York City police officer accused of using a banned chokehold in the 2014 killing of Eric Garner, whose dying words - "I can't breathe" - became a slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement.
A federal prosecutor silently sat in on the proceeding at New York Police Department headquarters where a police union lawyer for Officer Daniel Pantaleo informed an administrative judge that his client wouldn't testify. The reason: Pantaleo is technically still the target of the federal investigation opened in 2014 after a state grand jury declined to charge the officer.
Absent Pantaleo's testimony, the defense called a paid expert as its lone witness to testify that Garner died from heart failure. That contradicted the city medical examiner's finding of asphyxiation.
The case brought by a police oversight agency could result in Pantaleo's firing - an outcome that would fall far short of demands by Garner's family and police reform advocates that the Department of Justice bring charges against the officer ahead of a statute-of-limitations deadline in mid-July.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Geddes, head of the civil rights division of the federal prosecutors' office in Brooklyn, left the hearing on Wednesday without speaking to reporters on the subject. An office spokesman declined comment.
The 43-year-old Garner, who was accused of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, was stopped by police on Staten Island on July 17, 2014, and refused to be handcuffed. Pantaleo is seen in a widely watched cell phone video putting Garner in an apparent chokehold, which is banned under NYPD regulations.
The heavyset victim, who had asthma, is heard gasping on the video, "I can't breathe." He was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Police union officials and Pantaleo's lawyer have argued that the officer used a maneuver taught by the police department, not a chokehold, and that Garner's poor health was the main reason he died.
Michael Graham, a chief medical examiner for the city of St. Louis and professor of pathology at St. Louis University, testified on Wednesday that he reached his own conclusions about Garner's death after reviewing autopsy data and photos, along with two cell phone videos.
The photos show minor internal bruising around Garner's neck, Graham said. But since Garner is seen on video still moving and speaking after Pataleo released his hold, the cause of death "can't be compression of the neck," he said.
Garner "never lost consciousness" during the takedown, he said. "He probably felt he couldn't breathe. But the fact is he could breathe."
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