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In Eric Garner death, Staten Island grand jury votes not to indict officer, sparking protests

People embrace on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014, near

People embrace on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014, near the spot on Staten Island where Eric Garner was being arrested in July. A grand jury on Wednesday decided not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in Garner's death. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

A Staten Island grand jury voted Wednesday not to indict a white NYPD officer in the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died after being placed in an apparent chokehold during an arrest this summer.

After a two-month investigation, the special grand jury found that Officer Daniel Pantaleo, 29, should not face any criminal charges stemming from the videotaped July 17 confrontation.

"After deliberation on the evidence presented in this matter, the grand jury found that there was no reasonable cause to vote an indictment," Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan Jr. said in a statement in which he acknowledged "the heartache" of Garner's loved ones.

Garner's family and many elected officials were stunned and saddened by the decision, which prompted protesters to stage a "die-in" at Grand Central Terminal and gather at Times Square and Rockefeller Center. Some bore placards reading "Black lives matter" and "Fellow white people, wake up."

The demonstrations, which appeared to be peaceful, came nine days after violence erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after a grand jury declined to bring charges against a white officer who fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

"Today's outcome is one that many in our city did not want," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in an afternoon statement in which he called for calm.

In an emotional news conference Wednesday night at a Staten Island church, he said: "This is now a national moment of grief and pain. We are dealing with centuries of racism that brought us to this place."

In other developments:

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department will launch a civil rights investigation into Garner's death. "Our prosecutors will conduct an independent, thorough, fair and expeditious investigation," he said.

President Barack Obama said the grand jury decision underscores the need to strengthen trust and accountability between communities and law enforcement. He said there are "too many instances where people just do not have confidence that folks are being treated fairly."

In a move aimed at restoring public trust, the NYPD launched a pilot program to test body cameras on police officers.

Donovan said he is seeking to employ a little-used provision of state law to disclose information related to the secret grand jury proceedings.

Uproar after video

The encounter between Garner and Pantaleo caused an uproar after video footage of the altercation captured by a bystander was released.

It showed Garner, 43, repeatedly gasping, "I can't breathe," as Pantaleo and other officers took him to the ground while placing him in custody as he allegedly sold untaxed cigarettes. Chokeholds are banned under NYPD policy.

In a statement through the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, Pantaleo said he became a cop to help people who couldn't protect themselves.

"It is never my intention to harm anyone, and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner," he said. "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."

On MSNBC's "Politics Nation," Garner's widow, Esaw, told the host, the Rev. Al Sharpton, she got some comfort from speaking to Holder Wednesday.

"We still have hope and we still have a fight to fight to get this justice for my husband. . . . He will not die in vain," she said.

Shortly after Holder's announcement, Sharpton called for a march on Washington on Dec. 13 to "deal with a national crisis" of police shootings of unarmed black men.

Two-month investigation

The special grand jury composed of 23 Staten Island residents was empaneled in late September. At least 12 jurors out of 16 who had seen all of the evidence were needed to vote in favor of an indictment.

Donovan said his staff relied on more than 38 interviews and found 22 civilian witnesses who reported seeing some of the interaction between Garner and the officers during the encounter in the Tompkinsville section.

The district attorney also relied on medical experts and had the report of the city medical examiner, which determined that Garner died of neck compression caused by a chokehold, as well as chest compression as he struggled with officers.

The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide but said Garner's bronchial asthma, obesity and heart condition also contributed to his death.

As of late Wednesday, no judge had ruled on Donovan's motion and he was limited in what he could say about the grand jury probe.

Unlike the law in Missouri, which allowed the local district attorney to immediately disclose all of the transcripts and evidence, New York prohibits such release except where there is a "compelling and particularized" need, Donovan said.

Pantaleo's attorney, Stuart London, said his client testified before the grand jury for about two hours on Nov. 21 and thought that helped the panel decide in his favor.

"His testimony was telling," London said. "With the video, he had to testify. He was emotional and passionate. . . . They believed he never intended to injure Garner, and that is what it came down to."

London said he didn't know what exact charges Donovan submitted to the grand jury, but believed one was criminally negligent homicide, a low-level felony that requires a showing that gross negligence caused someone's death.

Murder charges were never an issue, said other defense attorneys who monitored the case.

"Obviously the grand jury felt he used reasonable force in the circumstances confronting him," said former state prosecutor and Brooklyn defense attorney James DiPietro.

PBA president Patrick J. Lynch was pleased with the grand jury's decision, saying the officer used a "take down technique that he learned in the academy" when Garner resisted arrest.

Pantaleo, who was stripped of his gun and shield but is still getting paid to stay at home, faces a host of potential problems. Now that the grand jury process is finished, the NYPD is putting its internal investigation of Pantaleo and the other cops who were involved into high gear, a law enforcement official said.

Attorneys for Garner's family have said they intend to file a lawsuit.

The federal investigation will be conducted by a team that includes U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, who has been nominated to succeed Holder as attorney general, and whose office handles cases from Staten Island, as well as Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island.

Holder said Lynch's office, the department's Civil Rights Division and the FBI monitored the case closely after Garner's death and will conduct "a complete review of material gathered during the local investigation."

Hundreds protest in city

As the night wore on, a loud but largely peaceful crowd of about 300 gathered under the bright neon signs of Times Square. Later, protesters converged on Rockefeller Center, where the annual holiday tree-lighting ceremony was held.

At least five people were arrested there shortly before 7 p.m., with police in riot gear setting up barricades and warning demonstrators to clear the streets.

"I'm here for Eric Garner, I'm here for Trayvon Martin, I'm here for Michael Brown, and I'm here for everybody else that has been taken advantage of and being devalued as human beings," said one protester, Tuqan Wright, 23, of Harlem.

Through the night, protesters conducted sit-ins at Times Square and Grand Central Terminal, marched to the Lincoln Tunnel, shut down the West Side Highway and marched to the Brooklyn Bridge.

NYPD Commissioner William Bratton told CNN there had been about 30 arrests, with more expected.

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