‘American Trial: The Eric Garner Story’ Review
We open on a blank screen, but immediately recognize the audio. “I did nothing.” American Trial producer and director Roee Messinger slowly brings up the all-too-familiar video of Eric Garner being wrestled to the ground by multiple police officers. Mr. Garner is heard saying “I can’t breathe” eleven times during the cell phone video. Those were to be his last words.
His death was ruled a homicide, but a Grand Jury refused to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo. Filmmaker Messinger presents a “What if?” had there been a trial. This is Messinger’s first feature film, and it’s non-scripted…a mock trial featuring former NY state prosecutors, practicing attorneys, actual witnesses, field experts, Garner’s wife, and actor Anthony Altieri playing the role of Officer Pantaleo. We see Mr. Pantaleo in consultation with his attorneys, but the vast majority of the film is spent in the courtroom as we watch the proceedings, and hear testimony.
For those of us whose time in a courtroom is limited to mandatory appearances for jury duty, it’s very interesting to see how a trial is conducted; though we should keep in mind that the pace is a bit faster in an edited movie version than what would occur in real life. Still, listening to the experts – a Medical Examiner and Pathologist offering conflicting opinions on the evidence drives home the point of what a challenging job jurors would have had with the case. Then there is Mr. Garner’s friend who testifies that he witnessed the whole thing while standing just a few feet away. His reason for not getting involved was fear of being arrested himself. Of course, the most emotional testimony comes from Esaw Snipes Garner, Eric’s wife of 26 years. She’s defensive and impassioned while on the stand, and her frustration and distrust of the system is palpable.
In the film, Officer Pantaleo is charged with Manslaughter and Strangulation. When he takes the stand, we learn some of his background and police training. We hear the definition of a chokehold versus “necessary” force in bringing a suspect under control. Mr. Garner was a large man – approximately 395 pounds. He made it very clear to the officers on the scene that he was not going to cooperate with being arrested. Was it a chokehold? Was it necessary force? Was Garner really unable to breathe? All of these questions are addressed, as was the reason police approached him in the first place – suspicion of illegally selling cigarettes (“loosies”) on the streets of Staten Island.
Just like cameras and recording devices, we aren’t allowed to witness the jury deliberations. In fact, the purpose is to have viewers act as jurors in the case – listen to the evidence and testimony and arguments, and then make your own decision. Noted Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz serves up his thoughts, and we learn of Mr. Garner’s many underlying health issues (asthma, high blood pressure, sleep apnea) while making up our own mind on what happened that day, and what Garner’s death should have led to.
American Trial: The Eric Garner Story is available on virtual cinemas.