No indictment in NYPD in-custody death
Justice Department official said federal authorities would conduct their own investigation into the July 17 death
By Tom Hays and Colleen Long
NEW YORK — A grand jury cleared a white police officer Wednesday in the videotaped chokehold death of an unarmed black man stopped for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, triggering protests in the streets by hundreds of New Yorkers who likened the case to the deadly police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
As the demonstrations mounted, a Justice Department official in Washington said federal authorities would conduct their own investigation into the July 17 death of Eric Garner at the hands of Officer Daniel Pantaleo.
Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said the grand jury found "no reasonable cause" to bring charges, but unlike the chief prosecutor in the Ferguson case, he gave no details on how the grand jury arrived at its decision. The panel could have considered a range of charges, from reckless endangerment to murder.
Protesters gathered in Times Square and began marching toward the annual Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting with a combination of professional-looking signs and hand-scrawled placards reading, "Black lives matter" and "Fellow white people, wake up." And in the Staten Island neighborhood where Garner died, people reacted with angry disbelief and chanted, "I can't breathe!" and "Hands up — don't choke!"
Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, said the grand jury decision "just tore me up."
"I couldn't see how a grand jury could vote and say there was no probable cause," she said. "What were they looking at? Were they looking at the same video the rest of the world was looking at?"
In his first public comments, Pantaleo said he prays for Garner's family and hopes they accept his condolences.
"I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can't protect themselves," he said in the statement. "It is never my intention to harm anyone, and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner."
Police union officials and Pantaleo's lawyer argued that the officer used a takedown move taught by the police department, not a banned maneuver, because Garner was resisting arrest. They said his poor health was the main reason he died.
As protests started to gather steam citywide, Mayor Bill de Blasio canceled an appearance at the tree lighting and met with Garner's father and other community leaders. At a Staten Island church, he said "there's a lot of pain and frustration in the room this evening," but he called on protesters to remain peaceful.
A video shot by an onlooker and widely viewed on the Internet showed the 43-year-old Garner telling a group of police officers to leave him alone as they tried to arrest him. Pantaleo responded by wrapping his arm around Garner's neck in what appeared to be a chokehold, which is banned under NYPD policy.
The heavyset Garner, who had asthma, was heard repeatedly gasping, "I can't breathe!"
A second video surfaced that showed police and paramedics appearing to make no effort to revive Garner while he lay motionless on the ground. He later died at a hospital.
Experts said that without knowing how prosecutors presented the case, it's difficult to theorize how the grand jury reached its decision. Critics of the outcome in Ferguson — where a grand jury last week refused to indict a white police officer who shot unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown — complained that prosecutors there allowed the officer to give a self-serving account without challenging inconsistencies.
The Garner video "speaks for itself," said Jeffrey Fagan, a professor at Columbia Law School. "It appears to show negligence. But if we learned anything from the Brown case, it's the power of prosecutors to construct and manage a narrative in a way that can shape the outcome."
As with the Ferguson shooting, the Garner case sparked protests, accusations of racist policing and calls for federal prosecutors to intervene. But unlike the Missouri protests, the demonstrations in New York remained mostly peaceful.
The case prompted Police Commissioner William Bratton to order officers at the nation's largest police department to undergo retraining on use of force.
After the grand jury decision came down, Garner's widow, Esaw, said she spoke to Attorney General Eric Holder and came away with reason to hope for justice for her husband.
"Regardless to what, he will not die in vain," she said. "He has children. He has grandchildren that miss him a lot. I miss him every single day, and I try to keep myself busy, but I know I got to stay strong and fight this fight."
Several dozen demonstrators at the site of the Garner's arrest scattered cigarettes on the ground in homage to him and lit candles.
"Cold-blooded murder!" said Jennie Chambers, who works nearby and saw Garner daily. "We saw it on TV, it's on video. The whole world saw it. Ferguson, now us."
The medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide and found that a chokehold contributed to it. A forensic pathologist hired by Garner's family, Dr. Michael Baden, agreed with those findings, saying there was hemorrhaging on Garner's neck indicative of neck compressions.
While details on the grand jurors were not disclosed, Staten Island is the most politically conservative of the city's five boroughs and home to many police and firefighters. The district attorney said he will seek to have information on the investigation released.
Pantaleo had been stripped of his gun and badge and will remain on desk duty pending an internal police investigation that could result in administrative charges.
As the grand jury decision drew near, police officials met with community leaders on Staten Island to head off the kind of violence seen in Ferguson, where demonstrations triggered arson and looting and resulted in more than 100 arrests and the destruction of 12 commercial buildings by fire.
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