Eric Garner’s widow broke down in tears on Saturday as she took the stand and testified about her husband’s death.
“This is a little too much for me,” Esaw Snipes said as she eyed the 12 men and women playing the parts of jurors and took questions from defense attorney Priya Chaudhry.
The wood-paneled courtroom felt genuine, as did the questions, but Snipes knew it wasn’t real.
A grand jury did not indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD cop who put Garner in a chokehold in the moments leading up to the Staten Island man’s July 17, 2014, death.
But the producers of an experimental film project staged a mock trial on Saturday — creating a live courtroom proceeding featuring real witnesses, real evidence and only one actor, playing the role of the controversial cop.
Cameras rolled as the jurors heard about real evidence, an autopsy and the video that captured Garner’s last moments.
Snipes walked out of the all-too-real-looking courtroom in the Bronx School for Law, Government & Justice, standing in for the Staten Island Supreme Courthouse, with tears still in her eyes.
“That was horrible. It was too real,” she said.
Snipes agreed to participate in the project, dubbed “American Trial,” when she met filmmaker Roee Messinger during a protest at the Brooklyn Bridge in 2015.
“He was genuine and unlike the others who seem like they were opportunists or about the money,” Snipes said during a break in the production.
Messinger has been working on the crowd-sourced docudrama project for nearly three years.
“I’m making this film because I personally think there should of been a trial,” he said. “I want those watching this to see all sides.”
Snipes said she did realize how emotional testifying would be, real or not.
“I didn’t get a chance to grieve my husband until today, it kind of just hit me and I got overcame with grief,” she said.
Snipes told the jury of how on the morning of Garner’s death, she made dinner plans with her husband of 26 years.
“I told him I was gonna cook him pork chops and rice and beans,” she recalled. “He said that sounds good.”
The widow told the actors in the jurors’ box about Garner’s issues with allergies and how he suffered from asthma, obesity, high blood pressure, sleep apnea.
The Department of Justice is still investigating whether charges should be brought against Pantaleo.
Snipes seemed uncertain if she would testify should the DOJ land an indictment.
“After today, I’m done. I don’t have faith in the Department of Justice. I don’t care what they do,” she said.
The actor playing Pantaleo also testified — telling the story as the defense team imagined the real cop would have.
The Pantaleo stand-in said he thought Garner could breathe during the arrest because he had the ability to say he couldn’t.
‘Anytime you’re trying to arrest somebody, (suspects) are always saying thing stop try to get you to stop. If you were to listen to them you’d never make the arrest,” said Anthony Altieri, in his role as the defendant.
“Plus, he was on the ground and we almost had him cuffed.”
For the sake of the film, Pantaleo was charged with manslaughter under the theory of recklessness and strangulation.
Lawyer Tom Kenniff, playing the prosecutor, challenged the witness on the NYPD patrol guide’s definition of a chokehold.
He asked if it was “fair to say” someone repeating the now-famous mantra “I can’t breathe” had short air supply.
“It’s possible, yes,” Altieri admitted.
The parties prepared cases based largely on information in the public realm, the director said.
The defense argued that Garner could actually have died from any of his serious medical conditions — or a combination — and that the force used to restrain the 400-pound suspect was not to blame.
“Nobody wanted to see Eric Garner die that day,” argued Robert Brown, a defense lawyer playing one of Pantaleo’s attorneys. “It’s a tragedy, but it’s not a crime.”
But the prosecution side said his intent was not an issue — only whether his conduct killed Garner.
“The only question you’re left to resolve is, ‘Did these actions cause Mr. Garner’s death?’” Kenniff said in summations.
The producers aren’t releasing the jury’s verdict or saying if the group reached one after a full day of filming.
Witnesses also included former chief medical examiner Michael Baden and James Knight, a pal of Garner’s who was with him when the altercation began.