Any hope of deciding the Eric Garner case outside the shadow of the fury in Ferguson, Missouri, is lost. The family of the dead Missouri teenager, Michael Brown, has confirmed that they will attend a protest march on Staten Island on Saturday -- inextricably tying together the deaths of two unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers.
Will grand jurors in the Garner case have Ferguson in mind when they weigh the evidence? I know I would. It bears remembering that most communities don't erupt after such cases. Last July, for example, there was little violence following the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's killer.
However, the shadow of the race-related combustion in Ferguson will hover unfairly over New York City police officers who could face charges. If the officers are not criminally charged, can New York avoid the despair we've witnessed over the last two weeks in Missouri?
Garner's death has been ruled a homicide; the medical examiner said it was the result of a chokehold -- a procedure the a NYPD has banned for decades -- and chest compressions, after he appeared to resist arrest. The confrontation was captured by a bystander on video.
Ultimately, how New Yorkers react to an eventual Garner decision will depend on how each of us views the demographics in the five boroughs, NYPD history and the justice system.
Staten Island's district attorney, Daniel M. Donovan Jr., said he would put the Garner case in front of a special grand jury. Given Staten Island's population, the jury pool will be largely white with a better-than-average chance of personal connection with law enforcement. Could that weigh in favor of the police officers?
Members of Garner's family apparently believe so: They've been pressing for federal prosecutors to take over the case. Six members of Congress from NYC -- five of them black -- also want Attorney General Eric Holder to remove the case from Staten Island.
Activist Rev. Al Sharpton has met with Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. But so far, there seems to be no grounds to place the Garner case into federal hands, and the move could risk making the case against the cops more difficult. The evidentiary bar is much higher in a federal civil rights case. This agitation for federal involvement appears to be a stunt to pressure Donovan as he presents his case to a grand jury.
However, there's a precedent for at least moving the case out of Staten Island. After the 1999 shooting death of African immigrant Amadou Diallo by four white officers, the police union argued successfully to have the case removed from the Bronx, saying the officers couldn't get a fair jury there. It was tried in Albany, and the four cops were acquitted.
And as columnist Len Levitt detailed this week in amNewYork, there's a long history of white NYPD officers walking away without charges after killing black men and a 10-year-old boy.
The justice system is going to have to show wisdom at every stage of the Garner decision. Even then, we'll be divided, depending on how we perceive what's fair.
Unlike in Ferguson, New York City has a mayor and other elected officials who are responsive. We also have vocal and organized leadership in the minority community. These may prove to buffer the outrage expressed in Ferguson.