A lawyer for the family of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died gasping “I can’t breathe” in a racially charged 2014 police incident, said Friday he was pessimistic about federal civil rights charges being lodged after a report that they were meeting resistance at high levels of the Justice Department.
“It’s a never-ending long line of maybes that will probably end up in their deciding not to bring a prosecution,” said family lawyer Jonathan Moore of Manhattan. “We think there’s enough evidence, but it’s been four years. It’s time to make a decision.”
After a lengthy investigation that began under the Obama administration, the Justice Department’s civil rights division in Washington wants to charge Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who restrained Garner around his neck, but The New York Times reported Friday that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is unconvinced.
Garner’s death triggered marches in 2014, but Staten Island prosecutors didn’t indict Pantaleo and Brooklyn federal prosecutors concluded civil rights charges weren’t warranted. The civil rights division began investigating under President Barack Obama, but the case wasn’t resolved when he left office.
Friday’s news ended a long period of silence about the case. The Rev. Al Sharpton, a Garner family supporter, said in a statement he was “cautiously hopeful” after the news, while police union president Pat Lynch complained that civil rights prosecutors were still trying to build a case.
“This latest report, if true, is proof that those seeking an indictment still haven’t managed to twist the facts and evidence to fit their pre-determined outcome,” said Lynch, head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “It is long past time for the Justice Department’s leadership to put an end to this fishing expedition.”
The death of Garner, 43, was ruled a homicide caused by neck and chest compression. Chokeholds are banned by the NYPD, but a civil rights case would be difficult, experts say, because Pantaleo was making a legal arrest of Garner for selling untaxed cigarettes, and prosecutors would have to show he intended to violate Garner’s civil rights. The Times reported that Rosenstein is skeptical that the Justice Department could win a trial.
Pantaleo’s lawyer Stuart London said “politics” should be kept out of the final decision.
“Officer Pantaleo has consistently denied that he ever had a chokehold or violated any of Mr. Garner’s federally protected civil rights,” London said. “Politics should never trump the rule of law and although this has been a long road for Officer Pantaleo, he is aware that the case is a tragedy due to loss of life.”