NEW YORK CITY — The NYPD's prohibition of chokeholds began more than 20 years ago after a criminal case that closely resembles the tragedy surrounding Eric Garner's death.
In 1991, four police officers were indicted for fatally choking Frederico Pereira, a Queens fast food cook. His death sparked a public outcry and protests led by Rev. Al Sharpton, especially since the incident came on the heels of the sensational police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles which, like the Garner case, was caught on videotape.
Pereira and Garner died while being arrested for minor offenses and both incidents involved eyewitnesses with their own criminal records.
But, most importantly, the medical examiner determined that, in addition to the police actions, the medical histories of the two men were "contributing factors" in their deaths.
Garner, 43, who was 6-foot-3 and 350 pounds, died after a group of NYPD officers swarmed him on a Staten Island street where he was allegedly selling "loosie" cigarettes. Officer Daniel Pantaleo was shown on video grabbing Garner around the neck as he was pulled to the pavement while other officers struggled to handcuff him.
Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, who is investigating the incident, is expected to present evidence to a grand jury soon, sources say.
Ultimately, the question of whether the police killed Garner will likely hinge — as it did with Pereira — on whether the “contributing factors” played a large enough role in his death to exonerate them, experts say.
Back on July 22, 1991, police spotted Periera slumped over behind the wheel of a stolen car parked outside P.S. 220 at 108th Street and 62nd Avenue in Rego Park.
It was 1:30 a.m. and the engine was running, the car’s ignition was broken, a rear window was smashed and Pereira had a screwdriver in his pocket.
When one officer with his gun drawn confronted Pereira, 21, who had a history of theft and drug arrests, he allegedly went berserk, knocking the gun from the officer’s hand. That prompted three officers to grab Periera and pull him out of the car.
Three teenage witnesses accused the police of tying Periera's hands to his feet behind his back, with one officer, Anthony Paparella, sitting on his back. Paparella allegedly then yanked the man's head backwards in a chokehold while another officer allegedly kicked a motionless Pereira.
The allegations were chilling, but police insisted they used proper techniques against a man who was thrashing and resisting arrest.
Paparella’s defense attorney Marvyn Kornberg recalled that the central issue was whether Pereira’s cocaine use was partly responsible for his death.
“The question was whether prosecutors could prove beyond reasonable doubt that Pereira died directly from a chokehold — or whether his cocaine abuse caused his death,” he said.
Four officers were initially indicted but charges of conspiracy were later dismissed against three, leaving Officer Paparella to stand trial for strangling Pereira.
After several weeks, a Queens judge acquitted him of manslaughter nearly a year and half after Pereira’s death, with a packed courtroom of cops and Pereira supporters erupting with emotions.
“The same people who clamored for a conviction back then are clamoring now,” Kornberg said.
“The atmosphere was the same. Politically charged. Sharpton picketed court every day. The only difference now is that he’s lost 100 pounds and wears suits instead of sweatsuits.”
But the single biggest difference between the Pereira case and Garner's may turn out to be the disturbing video. At a press conference Tuesday, Patrick Lynch, a police union president, insisted an objective "real time" examination does not show Pantaleo using a chokehold on Garner.
“The fact that an officer may have used the chokehold, even an improper one, does not mean he caused a death” Kornberg said.