A Staten Island grand jury voted not to indict an NYPD officer in the death of Eric Garner, the asthmatic, overweight man who died after cops wrestled him down with an apparent chokehold during an arrest last summer, according to the Staten Island district attorney.
The grand jury deliberated earlier Wednesday and decided no homicide charges were warranted against Officer Daniel Pantaleo. Garner, 43, died July 17 after a confrontation with cops in the Tompkinsville section while being arrested on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.
"After deliberation on the evidence presented in this matter, the grand jury found that there was no reasonable cause to vote an indictment," Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan Jr. said in a statement in which he acknowledged "the heartache" of Garner's loved ones "who have consistently carried themselves with grace during the past four months."
Mayor Bill de Blasio called it "a deeply emotional day" for the Garner family, and all New Yorkers.
"His death was a terrible tragedy that no family should have to endure. This is a subject that is never far from my family's minds -- or our hearts. And Eric Garner's death put a spotlight on police-community relations and civil rights - some of most critical issues our nation faces today.
"Today's outcome is one that many in our city did not want. Yet New York City owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through non-violent protest. We trust that those unhappy with today's grand jury decision will make their views known in the same peaceful, constructive way."
Donovan said the investigation "focused on locating civilian eyewitnesses with information and evidence to offer, speaking to those who provided medical treatment, whether on the scene or at the hospital, and consulting expert witnesses in the area of forensic pathology, policies, procedures, and training of police officers, as well as emergency medical technicians."
More than 38 interviews were conducted, "yielding 22 civilian witnesses who reported to have seen some part of the interaction" between members of the NYPD and Garner, Donovan said.
State law bars district attorneys from commenting on grand jury investigations, but Donovan said he filed Wednesday for a court order allowing him to release certain information used in connection with the grand jury investigation.
After learning of the decision, Pantaleo, 29, issued a statement through the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association: "I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can't protect themselves. It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner. My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss."
Ben Carr, Garner's stepfather, said the decision is "just like a knife stabbing my heart."
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito called the decision "a terribly disappointing outcome."
"What makes this even more infuriating is the frequent lack of accountability, which is why I urge the U.S. Department of Justice to launch its own investigation," she said.
As news of the grand jury's decision spread, less than a handful of protesters stood outside the Staten Island district attorney's office.
Bill Johnsen, 65, of Ocean Breeze, Staten Island, said he was disappointed there would be no trial, but not surprised.
"Shame on all of us," said Johnsen, a retired landscape contractor, motioning to the sidewalk filled with reporters but very few protesters. "There should be more people out here, not to burn the place down, but to get justice."
Linder Hampton, 59, a St. George, Staten Island resident, said she was "upset and hurt" that the grand jury had decided not to indict the officer.
"It could have been my son," said Hampton, a city worker.
"We as a people, we need to stand together -- not by color, just in general -- and unite and continue to fight for what is right, for justice to prevail," Hampton said. "When is it gonna happen? When? For another innocent victim doing some misdemeanor -- pay for it with their life?"
The Center for Constitutional Rights, which helped file and won a class-action lawsuit to end the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy, denounced the grand jury's decision and called for reform of the NYPD's "broken windows" policy of cracking down on minor problems to keep them from becoming major ones.
"It's bad enough that broken windows policing over something as harmless as selling untaxed cigarettes led to this tragic killing," said executive director Vincent Warren of the Manhattan-based nonprofit. "It's even worse when the officer responsible -- who was caught on tape using a prohibited choke hold, no less -- is not held accountable. The problem isn't one officer, though: it's systemic."
The New York Civil Liberties Union described the decision as a failure that demonstrates the need for "wholesale reform" of the NYPD. "How will the NYPD hold the officers involved accountable for his death?" executive director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. "And what will Commissioner Bratton do to ensure that this is the last tragedy of its kind?"
PBA President Patrick J. Lynch said in a statement that he was pleased with the grand jury's decision in a case where there are "no winners."
"There was a loss of life that both a family and a police officer will always have to live with," Lynch said. "It is clear that the officer's intention was to do nothing more than take Mr. Garner into custody as instructed and that he used the take down technique that he learned in the academy when Mr. Garner refused."
The grand jury proceedings are secret but apparently the panel didn't think Pantaleo's conduct was culpable. An attorney for Garner's family said that relatives plan to press federal authorities to launch an investigation. The family filed a $75 million notice of claim with the city in October, the first step in a lawsuit.
Pantaleo is not out of woods since he now faces the prospect of command discipline and an Internal Affairs Bureau probe, said police officials. Police investigators will be closely looking at whether Pantaleo used excessive force, including a chokehold that is against NYPD protocol, said one law enforcement official. A bystander video of the incident depicted Pantaleo grabbing Garner and taking him down with what appeared to be a chokehold move as he resisted arrest.
The amateur video showed Garner prone on the ground repeatedly saying "I can't breathe" as officers restrained him, sometimes pressing his head on to the sidewalk. The images sparked outrage and prompted NYPD Commissioner William Bratton to announce that all officers would undergo special training for handling physical confrontations.
Garner's death occurred about three weeks before the killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, which set off days of violent protests and looting there. Last week a Missouri grand jury declined to charge Wilson, sparking looting and arson.
By contrast, Garner's death saw peaceful protests in New York City, topped by a vehicle caravan organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton and his National Action Network across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Staten Island where a rally was held.
On Aug. 1, the city medical examiner determined that Garner died as a result of compression of the neck by a chokehold, as well as compression of his chest while he was being restrained by police. Officials said that Garner's bronchial asthma condition, his obesity and high blood pressure contributed to his death.
After those findings were revealed, Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch said that the neck and chest compression mentioned in the autopsy report were consistent with life saving techniques done by emergency medical technicians and not indicative of a chokehold.
In ruling Garner's death a "homicide," the medical examiner stoked demands from civil rights activists such as Sharpton that criminal charges be brought.
Sharpton, along with his then-attorney Sanford Rubenstein, also asked Brooklyn federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch to begin a civil rights investigation. Lynch, who is now President Barack Obama's attorney general designate, was noncommittal.
On Aug. 19, Donovan said he would impanel a special grand jury to look into Garner's case, and in late September grand jurors were selected to hear the evidence. Exercising his right under state law, Pantaleo, who has been stripped of his gun and shield since the incident, testified for about two hours before the grand jury on Nov. 21, according to his attorney, Stuart London.
With Emily Ngo and Ellen Yan