Art is giving Eric Garner's family the trial that the justice system never provided them.
"When the non-indictment came through it was just, it kind of became, I guess, an obsession," said director Roee Messigner.
"Then one day it just occurred to me, I live in New York, everybody thinks there should have been a trial. Everybody who would have testified in court is probably within a 15-20 mile radius of me, probably wouldn't be all that difficult to track them down."
In February 2017 Messigner filmed "American Trial: The Eric Garner Story," which "depicts the trial that never took place against NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was videotaped choking Eric Garner to death in July 2014."
Garner's widow, Esaw Snipes-Garner and actual witnesses play themselves in the unscripted courtroom docudrama.
Garner's death on a sidewalk during an arrest for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes, and his gasped final words "I can't breathe" caught on bystander video, played a key role in the rise of the movement decrying excessive use of force by police officers against black men and teenagers in the United States.
Snipes-Garner hoped the film would help bring officer Pantaleo to trial, provide healing for herself and help Messinger's film career.
"I was thinking maybe it would give some insight to the legal people to, like take from what Roee put together and open up their minds to see what everybody else saw on camera. And unfortunately, it didn't happen that way," said Snipes-Garner.
"It gave me a sense of healing, not so much closure, she added.
The film features interviews with two Black Lives Matter activists and as Messinger describes 'two white conservative academics' to give the film a documentary feel.
"There were no actors, there was no script. Most of the scenes were done in a single take. We shot the whole thing in one day, the whole trial was shot in one day. So, there was very little control while we were filming," explained Messinger.
As the world marks the sixth anniversary of Garner's death on July 17th, his widow said everyday is painful.
"I miss him every day and more at night. You know, when you live with somebody for 26 years, and all of a sudden they're not there anymore, you know, it's really hard."
However, she laughs when she thinks about what he must be thinking as he watches her from heaven.
"I think he's up there laughing right now because he's like, what, my baby is really gone on screen and talking to somebody, wow."
The U.S. Department of Justice examined the case for years, but announced it would not prosecute Pantaleo, saying there was not enough evidence that he breached Garner's rights.
In 2015, New York City paid a $5.9 million settlement to Garner's family to avoid a civil lawsuit.
The film debuted on U.S. cable channel Reelz in June and is currently available to view on www.altavod.com.
(Production: Alicia Powell)
- Put your hands behind your back.
ERIC GARNER: I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe. I can't breathe.
ROEE MESSINGER: When the non-indictment came through, it was just-- kind of became, I guess, an obsession. Like, I couldn't wrap my head around it. I was thinking about it a lot.
And then one day it just occurred to me. I live in New York. Everybody thinks there should have been a trial. Everybody who would have testified in court is probably within a 15 to 20-mile radius of me. Probably wouldn't be all that difficult to track them down.
- Grand jury has found the evidence is just not there.
- --not to indict.
- --refuse to indict.
- No indictment.
- No indictment.
ROEE MESSINGER: Thank you, Mrs. Garner for coming in. I appreciate it.
ESAW SNIPES GARNER: It gave me a sense of healing. Not so much closure. But being able to, like, do these interviews and stuff without breaking down and without crying and getting so emotional.
- And what was he doing?
ESAW SNIPES GARNER: Selling cigarettes.
EMERALD GARNER: I was a big supporter of the movie. You know, when we first approached [INAUDIBLE] about it, I said I thought it was a good idea. You know, a lot of people tried to stop the movie.
A lot of people tried to, like, you know, stop production, say that it's not a good idea, it doesn't-- you know, they basically said that it would affect the federal case. And, you know, basically they pretty much talked us in circles for five years. So I say that is needed, and I appreciate it. It's an eye-opener.
ROEE MESSINGER: There were no actors. There was no script. Most of the scenes were done in a single take. We shot the whole thing in one day. The whole trial was shot in one day. So there was very, very little control while we were filming.
But I think the preparation that we made was so meticulous and thorough that on the day of there were few surprises.
- Focus yourself on the question that was asked, OK?
ESAW SNIPES GARNER: I'm answering the question.
He just told me to be myself, you know? And that's what I did. I got up there, and I answered their questions to the best of my ability.
And I think towards the end of my testimony I got a little emotional, and I was angry at the prosecutor-- the lady playing a prosecutor-- to the point where I wanted to literally jump off the stand and punch her in her face.
But I don't have anything else to say. If I can't say what I want to say, I don't have anything else to say.
I think he's up there laughing right now because he's like, what, my baby is really going on screen and talking to somebody? Wow. Every day. It's not just July 17. It's Christmas. It's Thanksgiving. It's the grandkids' birthday. It's my birthday. My anniversary. His birthday.
Just every day. Like, you know, I miss him every day and more at night. You know, when you live with somebody for 26 years and all of a sudden they're not there anymore, you know, it's really hard.
- Has the jury reached a verdict?
- Yes we have, your honor.
- What is your verdict?