Seven New York federal lawmakers pressed Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Thursday to file charges in the Eric Garner case before leaving office, and a leader of the group said the Justice Department should at least give Garner’s family and the city a status update on the stalled probe.
“It’s time for the Department of Justice to fish or cut bait,” said U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn. “ . . . The Garner family has twisted in the wind for too long. The current administration has an obligation to make an up or down decision before leaving.”
In the letter, Jeffries and fellow Reps. Jose Serrano, Jerry Nadler, Greg Meeks, Nydia Velazquez, Yvette Clarke and Adriano Espaillat urged federal civil rights charges against Officer Daniel Pantaleo for choking Garner and predicted the Trump administration would not pursue the case.
“In approximately two weeks, there will be a new DoJ less committed to civil rights enforcement,” they told Lynch. “Consequently, the investigation into Mr. Garner’s death may itself be suffocated and die.”
Garner, 43, died in July 2014, on Staten Island when Pantaleo took him down by grabbing him around the neck during an arrest for selling loose cigarettes and maintaining the hold as Garner gasped, “I can’t breathe.”
NYPD rules ban so-called chokeholds. A Staten Island grand jury declined to bring charges against Pantaleo and others involved in December 2014, opening the door for a federal probe. Federal charges require proof that Pantaleo intended to violate Garner’s rights.
Late last year, Newsday and others reported that Brooklyn federal prosecutors had concluded that civil rights charges against the officer were not warranted, and the Justice Department had shifted the case to its civil rights division in Washington.
Lynch, in Baltimore Thursday speaking about Justice Department accomplishments in pressing systemic police reforms and “community policing” initiatives, recalled her own role prosecuting cops in the Abner Louima case in the 1990s and said the work of reform was “far from finished.”
But she didn’t mention the case of Garner — who was killed while she was the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn — and did not include his name in a speech that referenced Freddie Gray’s funeral and the “tragic deaths” of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile during her tenure as Attorney General.
A Justice Department spokesman later declined to comment on the letter from the representatives or the status of the Garner case, and lawyers for both Pantaleo and Garner’s family said they were in the dark.
Jonathan Moore, a lawyer for the family, expressed “full support” for the effort from the seven Congresspeople. Pantaleo’s lawyer, Stuart London, said it would be “inappropriate to rush to any decision” on Garner without a proper grand jury presentation.
“Politics should never replace the rule of law,” he said.