The controversial hybrid documentary/drama American Trial: The Eric Garner Story premiered in mid-October at the 57th New York Film Festival, providing insight into the judicial process, police brutality and race relations in America. The experimental film features a mock trial that was filmed live to represent a fictionalized depiction of what might have happened if the Eric Garner case was not dismissed by a Staten Island, N.Y., grand jury.
Five years ago, Garner’s story grabbed headlines worldwide after police tried to arrest the 43-year-old for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. A viral cell phone video was recorded by Ramsey Orta on July 17, 2014, when Officer Daniel Pantaleo approached Garner and put him in a deadly chokehold. Garner repeatedly called out “I can’t breathe” over 11 times, but his pleas were not heeded.
He died on the sidewalk after paramedics were unable to revive him. The New York grand jury never prosecuted the now ex-cop, who was deemed responsible for Garner’s death (Pantaleo is now suing the city of New York to get his job back). American Trial uses real lawyers and witnesses who provide testimony to show what might have happened if the case was actually allowed to go to trial in a courtroom.
“Every trial is partially scripted. No attorney asks a question that they don’t know the answer to. So in that respect, given that they worked on it as they would a real case, you can say the attorneys wrote this film even though there was no actual screenplay,” director Roee Messinger explained to the moderator during the post-screening discussion of the film at NYFF. “Even the testimony of Anthony Altieri as Officer Pantaleo was not scripted. What we did is we made a list of facts that were disputed. We asked the actor about those facts and his performance was completely improvised.”
In addition to experts like Black Lives Matter advocate DeRay Mckesson and lawyer Alan Dershowitz, former prosecutors Thomas Kenniff and Stephen Raiser are law partners who took on their roles to prosecute Pantaleo in the film. “We decided if we were prosecutors, what charges would we go to first? I think a big part of it was determining [that]…the issue of strangulation as a big topic of discussion,” Raiser explained to The Root.
“A chokehold is a colloquial term. It means different things to different people. Some people call it a headlock. Some people call it strangulation,” Kaiser said. “What was important in this case was how the NYPD defined it. You look at the NYPD’s definition of it is very broad—essentially what the NYPD patrol guide says is you cannot apply force to a suspect’s neck, whether you are applying that force as a chokehold or your thumb and your index finger.”
Messinger claimed during the talkback that Pantaleo stated that he was advised by his superiors to apprehend Eric Garner.
“It’s not my place to say what is true or what is not true. I can say that is former Officer Pantaleo’s version. That was corroborated by his attorney [Stuart London]. We spoke to his attorney and asked that same question. Why did he proceed and not just give him a ticket? That was the answer that was given.”
Retired NYPD Officer Carlton Berkeley who appears as a witness in the movie, confronted the director and challenged this claim.
“I wanted to say that when Pantaleo’s lawyer said that he was sent by a supervisor, That was totally false,” Berkeley said before a room full of festival attendees. “There is a blue wall of silence. I’ve been trying to fight that and break that wall for the 20 years that I was on NYPD—and it still exists. What you all need to know is that not all police officers but some police officers lie and the police department takes up for them. That is not false. That is totally true.”
When we asked Messinger about the discrepancy, he told The Root that he was not in a position to say whether or not it was true or not but that he spoke to Stuart London, and “that is what he told us.”
Eric Garner’s widow Esaw Snipes-Garner also revealed during the post-screening conversation that she was repeatedly contacted by the Justice Department and told to stop production on the movie.
“When we had the first meeting with the Department of Justice, they said we couldn’t record anything. Lo and behold, my warrior daughter Erica, rest in peace, recorded the whole thing. It was [on Twitter] before we even got out of the meeting. They were talking about arresting her and taking her to jail and all of that. She said ‘Ma, I don’t care. They’re not going to do anything about daddy’s case.’”
Garner’s daughter Emerald Snipes–Garner came on stage during the Q&A and confirmed that she was also contacted about the film by the government. “Lawyers, the prosecution, the federal judge. I don’t know who this lawyer was that called me and told me this video needed to stop production. It was somebody with the Justice Department saying to stop the film. So that’s real. We refused to stop. I was like, ‘Don’t stop. This is really focusing on the victims. The victims are important.’”
The director corroborated claims by the Garner family that they were ordered to stop making the film. “I was never contacted by the Justice Department,” Messinger said. “But Esaw and Emerald have told me a number of times that when they were getting updated by the Justice Department about the status of the federal investigation on Daniel Pantaleo, they were asked on a number of occasions to put the brakes on the production, suggesting somehow that our film was obstructing justice and preventing them from doing their work or something like, that which is a little absurd.”
The Root request for comment from the DOJ was not immediately returned. A representative with the DOJ did say the department only corresponds in writing. “They should have that in writing. No one would call and say you need to do this or that. That is not how we operate,” a DOJ rep said. “No one would call and say hey, we need you to stop doing this. They will actually give them something in writing explaining what, when and how.”
The DOJ rep also responded to Esaw Garner’s statement that her deceased daughter, Erica, was threatened with arrest for recording a closed-door conversation at the DOJ. “She would have never have gotten through our gates with any type of device, period. That is No. 1. No type of device would have gotten through in our office. We check them at the door at all times. That’s not true for here. Maybe at another Department of Justice Office but not here.“
Dr. Michael Baden, a former New York City medical examiner who appears in the film as a medical expert and witness shared his thoughts on the outcome of the Garner case. “I was very disappointed in the grand jury verdict not to go further,” said Baden. “I think there is no question that in going over everything and going over all the records examining everything from the forensic pathology point of view, Eric Garner would not have died if the police hadn’t gotten a hold of him. He died because of pressure on the neck that not only obstructs blood flow in the carotid arteries, but compresses the windpipe, so a person couldn’t breathe.”
Esaw Snipes-Garner concluded the discussion by thanking everyone who attended. “Thanks for coming out. Continue to support. We are trying to pass an Eric Garner law. So we have a petition at change.org. You guys can go on and sign the petition.”
“Not only the chokehold is banned. We want to make it law, a federal law and 25 years to life for violating anybody in a chokehold, by a police officer. Anywhere, anyhow, 25 years to life automatic. Go to change.org, go sign the petition and let’s pass this Eric Garner law.”
American Trial: The Eric Garner Story is currently seeking distribution.
Shani Harris is a producer, filmmaker, journalist, photographer and writer. She has contributed to networks and publications such as CBS, Entertainment Tonight, BlackFilm, OK Magazine and LIVID Magazine. Follow her updates on Instagram at @shaniharris1