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Eric Garner: What's With the Toxicology?

August 4, 2014

While the medical examiner ruled that an NYPD-banned chokehold was in part responsible for the death of Eric Garner, the office refuses to release the results of its toxicology tests. 

“We do not make the test results public,” Julie Bolcer, spokeswoman to the medical examiner, wrote in an email over the weekend. However, she did not explain why the results would not be made public — somewhat baffling given that the office had released partial autopsy findings.

Bolcer had said Friday that the 6-foot-3-inch, 350-pound Garner — who was a diabetic and suffered from heart problems — died from a chokehold and compression to the chest. Cops arrested Garner, 43, in Staten Island last month for selling untaxed cigarettes.

The toxicology findings are important because they could reveal whether medications or other substances were in Garner’s system when he died. That detail could be central in the days ahead in Staten Island as the borough becomes the epicenter in the investigation into Garner’s death.

The NYPD has long released toxicology results in cases when people died while in police custody or while resisting arrest.

“We always released it in resisting cases,” a former top NYPD official said on condition of anonymity, “because it might explain why someone might resist.”

Chris Dunn, the associate legal director for the NY Civil Liberties Union, had another take on that. “The only reason the police release that information is to dirty people up.”

The Staten Island district attorney’s office said in a statement that the M.E.’s office “has indicated to us the cause and manner of death of Eric Garner on July 17, 2014. … We await the issuance of the official death certificate and the autopsy report.” 

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has taken the leadership in pursuing a prosecution of Daniel Pantaleo — the officer who applied the apparent chokehold on Garner — has said that Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan should either indict the cop or defer prosecution to federal authorities.

It is rare for district attorneys to give up authority to other law enforcement agencies. Donovan, a Republican in a largely white and working-class neighborhood, is a sharp and ambitious prosecutor with an eye on higher office. He ran unsuccessfully for state attorney general in 2010.

As Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said before he unsuccessfully prosecuted three cops in the shooting death of Sean Bell in a Queens nightclub in 2006, “It’s my job and my responsibility.”

On the other hand, in 1986, then-Queens District Attorney John Santucci gave up the racially charged Howard Beach case to then-Special State Prosecutor Joe Hynes.

In 1997, Hynes, then Brooklyn district attorney, gave up the Abner Louima sodomy case to Brooklyn federal prosecutors.

It is equally rare for NYPD officers to be convicted of on-duty crimes in state courts, no matter how serious.

Besides the cops in the Bell case, police officer Francis X. Livoti was acquitted in the Bronx for the chokehold death of Anthony Baez in 1994.

In 2000, four police officers were acquitted in the death of Amadou Diallo, at whom they fired 41 shots, mistakenly thinking he had a gun.

And it is equally rare for federal authorities to step in after state prosecutions have been undertaken. Despite Sharpton’s caterwauling, the feds declined to prosecute the four cops who shot and killed Diallo. Ditto the three cops who shot and killed Bell.

Livoti was the only officer the feds prosecuted after he was acquitted in state court, convicting him of violating Baez’s civil rights. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Garner’s case is different. Minor as the charge against him was and tragic as was the outcome, the cops were responding to a complaint. And Garner, who had been arrested 30 previous times, appears to have resisted arrest, saying: “This ends today.”

Those words have become a rallying cry for his supporters.

Nothing I’ve seen in 30 years of covering the NYPD equaled what began as a Mayor Bill de Blasio-sponsored dog-and-pony show in the Blue Room of City Hall last week, which ended with the mayor’s embarrassment at the hands of the Rev. Al Sharpton.

And de Blasio has no one to blame but himself.

With a degree of mayoral arrogance, he told reporters they could watch and listen to a round-table discussion on Eric Garner’s death, but not ask questions. 

De Blasio arranged the seating with Sharpton to his immediate left. Symbolically, this meant de Blasio deemed the Rev. more important than the mayor’s staff — including his deputy mayors, who sat further away.

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton sat to the mayor’s immediate right, meaning, symbolically, that Sharpton was of equal importance as the police commissioner.

Thus legitimized, Sharpton let both Bratton and the mayor have it. To Bratton’s claim that he would retrain the entire 35,000-member NYPD, Sharpton said, “How do you teach compassion?” To de Blasio he said, “If we’re going to just play spin games, I’ll be your worst enemy.”

This is what comes of De Blasio’s attempts to embrace Sharpton, having called him one of his most important advisers and hiring Sharpton’s longtime spokeswoman Rachel Noerdlinger, as chief of staff to his wife, Chirlane McCray. McCray wasn’t part of the roundtable, but Noerdlinger was seated prominently. And she rushed outside to greet Sharpton when he arrived 20 minutes late, then stuck to him as the discussion broke up.

The mayor ran on a platform to empower minorities against a department they saw as hostile, in particular the department’s overuse of stop-and-frisk. During the campaign, Sharpton left it to others to do the stop-and-frisk protesting. Perhaps that was because he was in the hole to former Commissioner Ray Kelly, whose spokesman claimed he and Sharpton knew each other since Kelly walked a beat in Harlem 40 years before. That may have been nonsense, but Kelly knew how to play Sharpton. De Blasio might learn something from him.

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