New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio won’t have to testify in a judicial inquiry into the 2014 police chokehold death of Eric Garner, a judge ruled Friday, dashing a long-running quest by Garner’s relatives to have the mayor questioned under oath.
Judge Erika Edwards also excused Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, the city’s chief medical examiner and other high-ranking current and former city officials from testifying, ruling that other witnesses have more direct knowledge of the case.
Edwards ordered 13 witnesses to testify in the inquiry, scheduled to start Oct. 25, including the NYPD’s chief spokesperson, the head of its internal affairs unit and the president of the police officers union.
Four officers and four sergeants who were involved in Garner’s arrest were also ordered to testify, but not the officer who placed Garner in the chokehold, Daniel Pantaleo. The NYPD fired him in 2019 after a department disciplinary trial.
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Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, and sister, Ellisha Flagg Garner, allege that de Blasio and other city officials neglected their duties in their handling of Garner’s death.
Carr said in a statement Friday that she was disappointed that de Blasio and Shea won’t have to testify, but heartened that the judge is forcing the city to turn over troves of previously undisclosed documents related to his July 17, 2014, death.
“It’s been seven years since Eric was murdered, and in spite of what Mayor de Blasio has said to me personally or to New Yorkers, he and other top city officials are still blocking transparency but now the court has ordered them to finally turn over information,” Carr said.
Nick Paolucci, a spokesperson for the city’s law department, said there was no reason to compel de Blasio, Shea and other high-ranking officials to testify “because they were not directly involved in the incident.”
The city has already provided Garner’s family with tens of thousands of records in response to freedom of information requests, Paolucci said. Other information about the case is already publicly available, he said.
“There is no evidence that the mayor or any other senior city official neglected their duties or violated the law,” Paolucci said.
Garner’s mother and sister, joined by police reform advocates, have been seeking a judicial inquiry since 2019 under a provision of the city charter that allows the courts to act as a check on the actions of city government.
Under the city charter, a summary judicial inquiry allows city officials to be questioned under penalty of perjury about matters of alleged official misconduct. Afterward, transcripts of their testimony are made public.
The Garner inquiry is focused on several main issues, including the factors leading to his stop, arrest and the use of force, whether officers lied on official documents, the leak of Garner’s arrest history and medical conditions, and allegations that officers failed to provide Garner with medical care.
The city sought to cancel the judicial inquiry, but a state appeals court ruled last week that Garner’s death was the “rare case in which allegations of significant violations of duty” warranted such a review.
During his weekly appearance Friday on WNYC radio, de Blasio spoke about the ruling that exempted him from testifying about Garner’s death.
“The inquiry is about what happened at the scene,” de Blasio told host Brian Lehrer. ”... It is not, in the eyes of the court, about people who were not there, had nothing to do with the moment. It is about what happened in that horrible, painful moment.”
Bystander video showed Pantaleo, who is white, wrapping his arm around the neck of Garner, who was Black, as they struggled against a glass storefront window and fell to a Staten Island sidewalk. Officers were trying to arrest Garner for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
Garner’s dying gasps of “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry among police reform activists.