NEW YORK -- Federal prosecutors said Tuesday that they won't file criminal charges against a white New York City police officer in the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner, a black man whose dying words -- "I can't breathe" -- became a national rallying cry against police brutality.
The decision to end a yearslong civil-rights investigation without charges was made by Attorney General William Barr and was announced the day before the five-year anniversary of the deadly Staten Island encounter, just as the statute of limitations was to expire.
Civil-rights prosecutors in Washington had favored filing criminal charges against officer Daniel Pantaleo, but ultimately Barr sided with other federal prosecutors based in Brooklyn who said evidence, including a bystander's widely viewed cellphone video, wasn't sufficient to make a case, a Justice Department official said.
Richard Donoghue, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, said at a news conference that while Garner's death was tragic, there was insufficient evidence to prove that Pantaleo or any other officers involved in the confrontation on a Staten Island sidewalk had willfully violated his civil rights.
"Even if we could prove that officer Pantaleo's hold of Mr. Garner constituted unreasonable force, we would still have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that officer Pantaleo acted willfully in violation of the law," Donoghue said.
Garner's family was incensed by the decision.
"This should have been taken care of years ago," said Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, a vocal police-reform advocate since her son's death. "This should have been taken care of under the [Barack] Obama administration. Then we would have had a fairer playing ground."
The Rev. Al Sharpton renewed his calls for the New York Police Department to fire the 34-year-old Pantaleo, who's been on desk duty since Garner's death and is awaiting the results of a disciplinary hearing that could lead to his firing. Mayor Bill de Blasio's office said it expects a decision by Aug. 31.
"Five years ago, Eric Garner was choked to death," Sharpton said. "Today, the federal government choked Lady Justice, and that is why we were outraged."
Pantaleo's lawyer, Stuart London, said the officer "is gratified that the Justice Department took the time to carefully review the actual evidence in this case rather than the lies and inaccuracies which followed this case from its inception."
Pantaleo's union president, Pat Lynch, said that "scapegoating a good and honorable officer, who was doing his job in the manner he was taught, will not heal the wounds this case has caused for our entire city."
Garner's death -- after he refused to be handcuffed after he was accused of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes -- came at a time of a growing public outcry over police killings of unarmed black men that gave impetus to the national Black Lives Matter movement. Just weeks later, protests broke out in Ferguson, Mo., over the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
When a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo on state charges in December 2014, demonstrations flared in New York and several other cities.
Amid those demonstrations, a man angry about the Garner and Brown cases ambushed and fatally shot two New York City police officers as they sat in their cruiser, further shocking the city and leading to the creation of the pro-police Blue Lives Matter movement.
Prosecutors in Brooklyn repeatedly watched video of the confrontation between Garner and police, Donoghue said, but weren't convinced that Pantaleo willfully violated the law in using a chokehold, which is banned under Police Department policy.
Pantaleo initially tried to use two approved restraint tactics on Garner, much larger at 6-foot-2-inches and about 400 pounds, but ended up wrapping his arm around Garner's neck "in what was, in effect, a chokehold" for about seven seconds as they struggled against a glass storefront window and fell to the sidewalk, Donoghue said.
"Significantly, officer Pantaleo was not engaged in a chokehold on Mr. Garner when he said he could not breathe, and neither officer Pantaleo nor any other officer applied a chokehold to Mr. Garner after he first said he could not breathe," Donoghue said.
Garner could be heard on bystander video crying out "I can't breathe" at least 11 times before he fell unconscious. The medical examiner's office said a chokehold contributed to Garner's death.
The federal probe resulted in two sets of recommendations.
The U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn recommended no charges, while civil-rights prosecutors in Washington recommended charging the officer. Barr, who watched the video himself and got several briefings, made the ultimate decision, a senior Justice Department official said.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations and investigative matters.
Information for this article was contributed by Karen Matthews of The Associated Press.
A Section on 07/17/2019
Print Headline: Charges ruled out for officer in NYC death