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Federal prosecutors say they won't bring charges against NYPD officers in Eric Garner's death

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn announced Tuesday they would not bring civil rights charges against NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for the 2014 death of Eric Garner during an arrest, closing the criminal investigation of a case that triggered one of New York City’s most searing debates over race and policing. The decision, announced at a news conference an hour after a meeting between prosecutors and members of Garner’s family, was immediately denounced by family adviser the Rev. Al Sharpton as a “disgrace and judicial malpractice” by the Department of Justice. (Credit: Newsday / Matthew Chayes; Corey Sipkin)

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn announced Tuesday they would not bring civil rights charges against NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the 2014 death of Eric Garner during an arrest, closing the criminal investigation of a case that triggered one of New York City’s most searing debates over race and policing.

The decision, announced at a news conference an hour after a meeting between prosecutors and members of Garner’s family, was immediately denounced by family adviser the Rev. Al Sharpton as a “disgrace and judicial malpractice” by the Department of Justice.

“We’re here with heavy hearts,” said Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, “because the DOJ has failed us.”

Garner, 43, died on Staten Island on July 17, 2014, after Pantaleo put an arm around his neck and took him down from behind as Garner resisted an arrest for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. A cellphone video of the incident went viral, showing Garner gasping “I can’t breathe” as he was subdued.

Richard Donoghue, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said after a 5-year probe, prosecutors concluded Pantaleo used legal maneuvers to try to control a resisting Garner and only used an NYPD- banned “chokehold” accidentally for seven seconds, making it impossible to prove he acted willfully as the federal law requires for prosecution.

“After an exhaustive investigation the Department of Justice has concluded that insufficient evidence exists to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the police officers who arrested Eric Garner … acted in violation of the federal criminal civil rights act,” Donoghue said at a packed news conference.

Donoghue, who said Attorney General William Barr made the final decision, called the death a “tragedy” but said aspects of the incident — including Garner’s 400-pound size, Pantaleo’s initial efforts to use “arm bar” and a “seat belt” techniques on Garner, and his release of the chokehold before Garner said “I can’t breathe” — made willfulness unprovable.

“This is the highest standard of intent imposed by law,” he said. “While willfulness may be inferred from blatantly wrongful conduct … an officer’s mistake, fear, misperception or poor judgment does not constitute willful misconduct.”

Pantaleo’s lawyer, Stuart London, lauded the decision. “It is always a tragedy when there is a loss of life,” he said. “Officer Panteleo is gratified that the Justice Department took the time to carefully review the actual evidence in this case rather than the lies and inaccuracies which have followed this case since its inception.”

Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch also offered praise. “Scapegoating a good and honorable officer, who was doing his job in the manner he was taught, will not heal the wounds this case has caused for our entire city,” Lynch said in a statement.

But the New York Civil Liberties Union said the case fit an all-too-familiar pattern — “police officers who kill unarmed black men rarely face any measure of accountability” — and activists at a protest at City Hall warned the city could face civil disruptions. Two protests are scheduled for Wednesday, one in Manhattan’s Foley Square at 4 p.m. and the other at the St. George Ferry Terminal on Staten Island at 6 p.m.

Political officials were also critical. Mayor Bill de Blasio complained about the length of time it took to conclude the federal probe. “Years ago, we put our faith in the federal government to act,” de Blasio said in a statement. “We won’t make that mistake again.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James, the city’s public advocate in 2014. said: “The entire world saw the same devastating video five years ago, and our eyes did not lie. Today’s inaction reflects a DOJ that has turned its back on its fundamental mission — to seek and serve justice.”

Although Tuesday’s decision ended the criminal probe, Pantaleo faces potential sanctions from a long delayed NYPD disciplinary hearing completed this month. His salary rose on modified duty after the Garner incident, but he could be fired if found guilty of departmental violations. An NYPD spokesman declined to comment Tuesday on the federal decision.

The federal investigation began after Garner’s death five years ago and a decision by Staten Island’s district attorney to not charge any officers with manslaughter or other charges triggered street protests in New York and elsewhere, and inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, which took Garner’s dying words as a rallying cry.

Initially conducted by prosecutors and FBI agents based in New York, the probe was moved to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in Washington amid reports that local prosecutors didn’t think a case was merited. No charges were filed by the Obama administration, leaving the case to the Trump administration.

Although a city medical examiner found that Garner’s death was a homicide due to a chokehold and chest compression, Donoghue said other experts cited factors including underlying medical conditions — Garner had asthma — and the 5-year statute of limitations on civil rights violations that only cause bodily injury runs out on Wednesday.

Donoghue said he regretted the wait till the last minute to resolve the case, citing extended discussions that involved several U.S. attorneys in Brooklyn and five attorney generals. “Obviously it was a difficult decision,” he said. “This should never have taken as long as it did.”

Donoghue said careful review of the video showed that at a key moment, as Pantaleo tried a legal “rear takedown” with his arm across Garner’s chest, the two fell against a window and Pantaleo “to maintain a hold” briefly wrapped the arm around Garner’s neck as they crashed to the ground.

“Officer Pantaleo maintained that hold on Mr. Garner for a total of approximately seven seconds,” he said. “ … As has been widely reported, Mr. Garner stated, ‘I can’t breathe,’ but I would point out that he made this statement only after he fell to the sidewalk and after Officer Pantaleo released his grip.”

But Sharpton said Donoghue’s meeting with the family was poorly timed at the anniversary of Garner’s death — “We don’t want your sympathy, we want justice!” one of Garner’s children told the prosecutors — and complained that the video was being distorted.

“How much do you have to investigate when a child can look at that video, [and hear] ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times?” Sharpton asked. “So are we saying Eric Garner didn’t have the civil right to breathe on that street that day?”

When the family emerged from the meeting, Garner’s daughter Emerald reacted with raw emotion, screaming to television cameras, “Pantaleo needs to be fired! He needs to be fired!”

Carr, Garner’s mother, said the family would continue to fight for justice. “Make no mistake about it, we’re going to still push,” she said, echoing the call for NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill to “make the right decision” and remove Pantaleo and the other officers involved in Garner’s arrest from the force.

“The streets of New York City are not safe with them walking around,” she said.

With Matthew Chayes and Anthony M. DeStefano

Timeline of the Garner case

July 17, 2014. Eric Garner, suspected of illegally peddling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk, is confronted by NYPD officers in plainclothes. Garner, 43, objects when the officers seek to arrest him, and Officer Daniel Pantaleo tries to subdue Garner and ultimately puts him in an apparent chokehold during the struggle. Garner, gasping “I can’t breathe,” dies after the encounter.

July 18, 2014. A bystander’s cell phone video goes viral showing the arrest, including Pantaleo placing his arm around Garner’s neck and other officers leaving him lifeless in handcuffs for about seven minutes. William Bratton, then NYPD commissioner, says: “As defined in the department’s patrol guide, this would appear to have been a chokehold.”

Aug. 1, 2014. The New York City medical examiner rules that Garner’s death was a homicide caused by a banned chokehold and neck compression.

Aug. 23, 2014. Thousands march in Staten Island over Garner’s death.

Dec. 3, 2014. The Staten Island district attorney announces that no criminal charges would be brought against Pantaleo, and soon thereafter, then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says the U.S. Justice Department would investigate separately. There are protests and civil disruptions.

Dec. 20, 2014. A mentally ill gunman ambushes and kills two NYPD officers in Brooklyn, saying he wanted to kill “pigs” to avenge Garner’s death.

July 13, 2015. New York City settles a civil case for $5.9 million brought by Garner’s family.

April 2018. Prosecutors in the Justice Department’s civil-rights unit recommend charging Pantaleo, but there is disagreement within the department by others who say Pantaleo’s actions didn’t rise to a federal crime.

July 2018. The NYPD announces it would permit a disciplinary proceeding against Pantaleo, after initially saying it must wait for the federal government’s criminal probe to end.

May 13, 2019. Disciplinary proceeding against Pantaleo begins at 1 Police Plaza.

June 6, 2019. Proceedings conclude. The NYPD commissioner is to decide Pantaleo’s fate.

July 16, 2019. Federal prosecutors announce they won’t bring civil right charges against NYPD officers involved in Garner’s death.

Compiled by Matthew Chayes

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