Eric Garner chokehold case rolls on, but future is cloudy
NEW YORK (AP) — A federal civil rights investigation into the police chokehold death of Eric Garner has been moving forward in New York, but its future is uncertain as a U.S. attorney general with a law-and-order bent takes over the Justice Department.
Two people with inside knowledge of the probe say a federal grand jury in Brooklyn met as late as last week to hear testimony about Garner’s deadly confrontation with New York Police Department officers on Staten Island in 2014.
Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” became a slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In recent weeks, officers who were present when Officer Daniel Pantaleo wrapped his arm around Garner’s neck have testified before the grand jury, according to the people, who were not authorized to discuss the secret proceedings and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Whether such testimony continues may depend on internal Justice Department politics.
The federal inquiry, which began after a state grand jury declined to charge Pantaleo in 2014, already stalled once last year when prosecutors based at the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn expressed doubt that there was enough evidence to make a criminal case against the officer.
Their hesitation resulted in the Justice Department, in the waning months of President Barack Obama’s term, dispatching Washington-based prosecutors to New York to forge ahead, according to a third person with knowledge of the case, who also was not authorized to discuss the inquiry and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.
It is unclear whether new Attorney General Jeff Sessions will take an interest in the case. Both the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn declined to discuss it Friday. Pantaleo’s attorney, Stuart London, also had no comment.
But Sessions has the power to freeze the investigation and order a review by Civil Rights Division under new leadership for the unit “that reflects his ideology,” said former federal prosecutor David Weinstein.
Sessions had been a vocal critic of the Obama administration’s aggressive response to allegations of police misconduct, including imposing federal oversight on problem police departments across the country. At a 2015 Senate hearing, he said “there’s a perception, not altogether unjustified, that the Civil Rights Division, goes beyond fair and balanced treatment.”
Given Sessions’ background, “the odds are longer it’s going to result in an indictment,” said Weinstein.
If Sessions’ Justice Department decides not to go forward, the inquiry could end by simply letting the 18-month limit for a special grand jury expire without a vote on an indictment, he said.
Trump last week told a conference of police department officials that their officers “are entitled to an administration that has their back.”
But in 2014 on the Fox News program “Fox & Friends,” he also singled out Pantaleo for criticism, though he didn’t identify him by name.
“That chokehold was terrible,” Trump said. “That cop was so aggressive, it was ridiculous. I don’t know where he came from, but that was a ridiculous situation to do. I mean if it’s anything like we see ... you know what we saw was a terrible situation.”
Garner’s death was recorded on video. The 43-year-old was stopped by officers for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. When he refused to be handcuffed, the white officer put Garner, who was black, in an apparent chokehold banned under NYPD policy. As the heavyset Garner was taken to the ground, he repeatedly gasped, “I can’t breathe.”
The medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide caused in part by the chokehold. But police union officials and Pantaleo’s lawyer have argued that the officer used a takedown move taught by the police department, not a chokehold, and that Garner’s poor health was the main reason he died.
A lawyer for Garner’s family, Jonathan Moore, said on Friday that a criminal prosecution is long overdue and called on Sessions “to step up and show that he can be an attorney general for the people.”
Said Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr: “No matter who is in office I would hope for an unbiased look at my son’s case.”
Associated Press writers Colleen Long in New York and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.