Like a devastating one-two punch, a grand jury in Staten Island has decided not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner—just nine days after the grand jury in St. Louis decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in Michael Brown’s death.
But while many observers expected that outcome in St. Louis, this case was different because the entire world watched the raw cellphone videotape of Garner being dragged to the ground and dying from the officer’s chokehold.
As attorney Lisa Bloom asked on MSNBC, “If we can’t get an indictment in this case, we can’t get an indictment in any case where a police officer kills a Black man. If Ferguson wasn’t a wake up call, this has to be.”
Attorney General Eric Holder held a press conference later in the evening to announce that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division will proceed with an investigation into the Garner case. Holder said he had passed this information on to Garner’s wife.
Holder asked that demonstrators remain peaceful, as both he and President Obama did after the St. Louis grand jury decision.
The Justice Department is still investigating Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, though most observers believe it will be much tougher to make the claim that Brown’s civil rights were violated than just to get an indictment. The Department will have a similarly high bar to scale in Staten Island.
Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan began presenting evidence to the grand jury in October and the decision came out Wednesday afternoon.
The viral video of Garner’s last breaths outraged many across the nation, prompting angry protests that presaged the violent confrontations in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of unarmed teen Michael Brown, who was killed three weeks after Garner.
Though the medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, Donovan decided to go the grand jury route, rather than just charging Pantaleo. To many, the Garner ordeal recalls the case of another unarmed Black man, Ernest Saxon, who was killed 20 years ago in Staten Island when he was asphyxiated while in handcuffs during a struggle with police. A grand jury heard evidence for seven months — and voted not to indict the three officers involved in Saxon’s death.
“They lost their provider, the father, the husband, the son, and it’s tough,” the Garner family attorney, Jonathan Moore, told The Huffington Post in October. “They’re upset.”
Attorney Faith Jenkins said on MSNBC earlier today that the Garner case was so different than many other police-involved killings because this wasn’t an incidence where police came upon a potentially dangerous suspect who could do them harm. Garner was a familiar sight in the Staten Island neighborhood where he tried to earn a living selling “loosies”—individual cigarettes. Because Garner didn’t have a license to sell them, police were constantly harassing him and writing him tickets for trying to ply his trade. When they came upon him, Garner said he was tired of being harassed and he resisted being put into handcuffs.
“They knew him; he was not commiting a violent crime,” Jenkins said. “They did not de-escalate the situation. They escalated it.”
Because the case was being handled in Staten Island, where many cops live and thus might be more likely to have cop sympathizers on the grand jury, and because district attorneys have to work closely with police officers on thousands of cases every year, many called for a special prosecutor in the case. The Rev. Al Sharpton asked the U.S. Department of Justice to step in.
Anthony Thompson, a professor of law at New York University, said to HuffPost he wondered why a grand jury was even necessary.
“Why not just direct file?” he said, adding that the video appeared to show sufficient evidence of Pantaleo’s wrongdoing to sustain a charge of negligent homicide.
“The chances of [Officer Pantaleo] beating it on Staten Island are pretty good,” Mathew Galluzzo, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, told The Staten Island Advance in October. “There’s a lot of allegiance to officers on Staten Island. If this was the Bronx, he’d be indicted already. But it’s Staten Island.”
The last time Donovan spoke on the case was in August, when he said, “I assure the public that I am committed to conducting a fair, thorough, and responsible investigation into Mr. Garner’s death. And that I will go wherever the evidence takes me, without fear or favor.”
The Garner decision raises questions about whether giving police body cameras—an action that has even been endorsed by the White House with a $75 million request of Congress to help provide 50,000 body cameras for officers across the nation—will even make a difference, since there was a video of the man’s death and it still didn’t result in an indictment.
Garner’s family served notice back in October that they would file a $75 million lawsuit against the NYPD and the officers who were responsible.
A nearby witness recorded the arrest with a cellphone and captured Garner repeatedly telling the swarm of officers he couldn’t breathe as they took him to the ground.
He later died at Richmond University Medical Center.
Garner’s widow, Esaw Garner; their six children; and his mother, Gwen Carr, want to make the city and the officers pay for what happened.
Ironically the Garner decision comes the same day as the Wall Street Journal published a devastating report revealing that the nation actually has no idea how often police kill Americans because a huge number of police departments—including some of the largest in the country, such as New York state—don’t report police killings to the FBI.
The analysis by the Wall Street Journal found that more than 550 police killings were missing from the national tally, meaning the richest nation on earth seems unable to account for how often the police gun down Americans in the streets of the U.S.—a stunning lack of accountability and oversight on an issue that has enormous consequences for American families. If we can’t even count the number of killings of civilians, it’s unclear how the nation can make any progress anytime soon in cutting down the killings, particularly the killing of Black men.