In a rare shake-up, the U.S. Justice Department has moved to replace the team of New York lawyers and FBI agents assigned to investigate the death of Eric Garner — the Staten Island man who died as a result of being placed in an illegal choke hold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo.
According to The New York Times, U.S Attorney General Loretta Lynch decided to swap out the investigative team by removing federal prosecutors in Brooklyn off the case and bringing in FBI agents from outside New York to examine the evidence with fresh eyes.
The attorney general has reportedly been deliberating for months on how to move forward with the case, which was stalled due to disputes between federal prosecutors in New York and civil rights officials in Washington over whether to bring criminal charges against Pantaleo. It’s hoped that this new team will help get the case moving again.
Garner, 43, died in July 2014 after an encounter with officer Pantaleo, who approached the Black man for reportedly selling loose cigarettes outside a Staten Island convenience store. Bystander video showed the officer placing Garner in a choke hold — a move deemed illegal by the NYPD — to subdue him. The father of five uttered the words “I can’t breathe” in his final moments, which became a rallying cry for protesters marching against the police killings of Blacks by law enforcement.
So far, the only person who has been criminally charged is Ramsey Orta, the bystander who filmed the incident. Orta was convicted on charges unrelated to the Staten Island man’s death, Atlanta Black Star reports.
While the DOJ has required police departments to do away with unconstitutional practices and better train its cops, the department has failed to convict individual officers involved in deadly shootings. To bring charges against Pantaleo, prosecutors must prove to a grand jury that a crime was committed, The New York Times reports.
A Staten Island grand jury declined to criminally charge the officer in December 2014. There’s no prediction on how the federal investigation into Garner’s death could play out.
Garner’s family argued that their loved one’s civil rights were violated in the fatal encounter with police, but Pantaleo’s lawyer, Staurt London, said that’s not the case.
“This was always a simple street encounter where Officer Pantaleo utilized his N.Y.P.D. training to subdue an individual,” London said.
“If it is true that the Justice Department is rejecting the recommendations of seasoned F.B.I. agents and assistant United States attorneys, this is a gross miscarriage of justice,” London also said of the overhaul. “In our system of justice, politics should never take the place of the rule of law.”
Pantaleo was stripped of his badge soon after the deadly shooting and placed on administrative duty as the DOJ worked to conduct its probe. However, the investigation has been dragging on for the last two years. According to officials, any decisions on criminal charges in the federal case is months away.
Garner’s sister, Ellisha Garner, told NBC New York that the years-long wait for the DOJ to conclude its investigation has been tough on the family, but that they’d wait as long as they had to in order to get justice for their loved one.
Social media users commended Lynch for her decision to overhaul the investigative team, which will ultimately get the case moving again.
I'll never forget hearing #EricGarner repeatedly tell the officer "I can't breathe." This is a hopeful step forward: https://t.co/4jjfv07e9V
— Alexi McCammond (@alexi) October 25, 2016
#EricGarner Thank you Department of Justice, it's time to start holding people accountable for murder. #HumanRights pic.twitter.com/hsM73mOGY3
— Derenic Byrd (@DerenicByrd) October 25, 2016