Justice Department Won’t Charge Cop Who Killed Eric Garner, Saying It Can’t Prove He Meant Harm

By julia.arciga@thedailybeast.com (Julia Arciga) Pilar.Melendez@thedailybeast.com (Pilar Melendez) Audrey.McNamara@thedailybeast.com (Audrey McNamara)
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP

Almost five years to the day after a New York City police officer strangled to death Eric Garner, whose last words “I can’t breathe” became a national rallying cry, the Justice Department said it will not prosecute his killer.

The department declined to charge NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo with violating Garner’s civil rights, announcing the decision one day before the statute of limitations runs out. Officials said Tuesday that Attorney General William Barr sided with federal prosecutors in New York to not prosecute Pantaleo, against the recommendation of the department’s Civil Rights Division that wanted to “move forward with prosecution.”

“After an exhaustive investigation the department of justice has reached the conclusion that insufficient evidence exists to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the police officers who arrested Eric Garner in Staten Island...acted in violation of the Federal Criminal Civil Rights Act. Consequently the investigation into this incident has been closed,” said U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue, the federal prosecutor overseeing the case in New York.

A senior department official said Garner’s statements that he could not breathe were “not 100 percent determinative” in proving Pantaleo meant to harm Garner by continuing to choke him.

Garner’s family blasted the decision after meeting with federal prosecutors in Brooklyn on Tuesday morning.

“We're here with heavy hearts because the DOJ has failed us,” Garner’s mother Gwen Carr said at a press conference. “Five years ago my son said ‘I cant breathe’ 11 times, and today I can’t breathe.”

On July 17, 2014, Garner was stopped by NYPD officers on a street corner in Staten Island for allegedly selling loose cigarettes against the law. A friend of Garner captured the encounter on video, showing Garner trying to pull away from surrounding officers before Pantaleo used a chokehold to try and subdue him. The officer choked Garner uninterrupted for several seconds even after the two fell to the ground. Garner said he couldn’t breathe 11 times before he slipped out of consciousness. 

It was not until after the officers noticed Garner was having trouble breathing that they called for an ambulance. In another video, paramedics were seen waiting several minutes before giving him oxygen. Garner died of a heart attack shortly after arriving at a hospital. The city’s medical examiner determined his death was a homicide, the result of a “lethal cascade of events” begun by Pantaleo’s chokehold.

Eric Garner Was Just a Number to Them

Garner’s death galvanized the nascent Black Lives Matter movement, which demanded greater transparency and accountability from police for the deaths of black people. In New York, thousands of protesters occupied parks and highways with signs baring Garner’s image and slogans of the movement. 

“This city and nation should thank the Garner family, because in five years this case brought police accountability to the forefront,” said Rev. Al Sharpton besides Garner’s family on Tuesday.

A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo. A subsequent federal inquiry split the Obama Justice Department in two: FBI and DOJ officials in New York opposed bringing charges, while prosecutors with DOJ’s Civil Rights Division supported doing so. The split was so sharp that then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch replaced New York agents investigating Pantaleo and ordered the inquiry to move forward. The investigation lingered on under the Trump administration. 

In 2015, Garner’s family received $5.9 million from the city to settle a wrongful death claim. The 43-year-old was the father to six children, including a daughter who became an advocate and died in 2017. 

Meanwhile, police found Pantaleo violated department policy that has prohibited chokeholds since 1993 and placed him on “restricted duty” where he receives full salary. 

The officer faced an internal disciplinary hearing earlier this month. An administrative judge will recommend whether to sanction Pantaleo, from docking him pay to terminating him. The final decision will then be made by NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill.

“Don't let the man continue to be on the payroll, for one more day, one more hour,” Sharpton said.

—With additional reporting by Pervaiz Shallwani.

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