"We can't breathe": Justice Department declines to charge officer in chokehold death of Eric Garner

The decision ends a five-year probe into a case that sparked a national conversation about police brutality

Published July 16, 2019 5:49PM (EDT)

People protest in Staten Island on the one year anniversary of the death of Eric Garner on July 17, 2015 in New York City.  (Getty/Spencer Platt)
People protest in Staten Island on the one year anniversary of the death of Eric Garner on July 17, 2015 in New York City. (Getty/Spencer Platt)

The Justice Department declined to bring federal charges against a white New York City Police Department officer accused of fatally choking an unarmed black man, Eric Garner, ending an extensive five-year investigation into a case that captured the nation's attention and prompted protests from coast to coast over the use of excessive force by police.

U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue announced the decision Tuesday morning, one day before the fifth anniversary of Garner's death and the deadline federal authorities have to bring charges against the police officer, Daniel Pantaleo.

Pantaleo has been accused of using a prohibited chokehold on Garner in 2014 while attempting to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes, a low-level misdemeanor. Video footage of the encounter appears to show Pantaleo holding Garner in a chokehold for 15 seconds, as Garner can be heard repeatedly uttering, "I can't breathe." During that time, another officer can be heard shouting, "He's down." However, Pantaleo did not let go.

Garner's death was ruled a homicide by the New York City medical examiner's office, and the medical examiner testified that Pantaleo's alleged chokehold caused Garner to have an asthma attack, which was "part of the lethal cascade of events." Pantaleo has maintained he used approved techniques im the fatal arrest.

Donoghue called Garner's death a "tremendous loss” but said "the evidence does not support charging police officer Pantaleo with a federal civil rights violation." He said there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Pantaleo "willfully" used excessive force to violate Garner's rights, as required under the law.

Attorney General William Barr ultimately made the decision not to bring charges against Pantaleo.

Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, decried the decision not to pursue charges against Pantaleo during an emotional press conference Tuesday morning. She invoked her son's dying words, "I can't breathe," which have become a rallying cry for police reform activists around the nation.

"We're here with heavy hearts “, because the DOJ has failed us," she said. "Five years ago, my son said, 'I can't breathe' 11 times. And today, we can't breathe, because they have let us down."

Carr called on the city to fire Pantaleo and vowed to "keep fighting" to hold the officers involved in the arrest accountable.

"We might not never know justice in the DOJ. But I think there will be justice, and we’re going to keep fighting," she said. "We're not going away, so you can forget that."

"We are asking the commissioner to make the right decision — that officer Pantaleo and all the officers who was involved in my son's death that day need to be off the force," she continued. “The streets of New York City are not safe with them walking around.”

"You killed my son, and you won't get away with it," she added. "I stood quietly by for five years. I'm not being quiet anymore."

Carr was joined by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who blasted the ruling as a “moral disgrace" and "judicial malpractice."

"This decision says that the federal civil rights are not protected no matter what the evidence may be," he said.

Federal investigators have been investigating the circumstances of Garner's death since 2014, after a grand jury in New York declined to criminally indict the police officer. In 2015, the city of New York paid out nearly $6 million to Garner's family in a settlement.

The NYPD brought departmental charges against Pantaleo earlier this year. If found guilty of using the chokehold and restricting Garner's breathing, he could face dismissal. A decision in that matter has not yet been made.

In the years since Garner's death, Pantaleo has stayed on the police department's payroll. He has remained on desk duty.

By Shira Tarlo

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