NEW YORK (AP) — Federal prosecutors said Tuesday that they won’t bring 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 rallying cry as the nation confronted a long history of police brutality.
The decision to end a yearslong civil rights investigation was made by Attorney General William Barr and was announced the day before the five-year anniversary of the deadly encounter, just as the statute of limitations was set to expire.
Barr disregarded a recommendation by civil rights prosecutors in Washington who favored filing criminal charges against Officer Daniel Pantaleo, siding instead with prosecutors in Brooklyn who said the evidence wasn’t sufficient to make a case, a Justice Department official told The Associated Press.
U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue, of the Eastern District of New York, said in a news conference that while the death was tragic, there was insufficient evidence to prove that Pantaleo or any other officers willfully violated Garner’s 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 mother, Gwen Carr, and the Rev. Al Sharpton said they were outraged and heartbroken. Sharpton called for the NYPD to fire Pantaleo, who’s been on desk duty since Garner’s death and is awaiting the results of a disciplinary hearing that could lead to termination.
“We are here with heavy hearts, because the DOJ has failed us,” said Carr, who has become a vocal advocate of police reform in the years since her son’s death. “Five years ago, my son said “I can’t breathe” 11 times. Today, we can’t breathe.”
A senior Justice Department official told the AP that prosecutors watched video of the confrontation “countless” times but weren’t convinced Pantaleo acted willfully in the seconds after the chokehold was applied.
Two sets of recommendations were made. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, which includes Staten Island, recommended no charges. Justice Department civil rights prosecutors in Washington recommended charging the officer. Barr made the ultimate decision, the official said. The official said Barr watched the video himself and got several briefings.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations and investigative matters.
Donoghue announced the decision not to charge Pantaleo after meeting with Garner’s family. At a news conference, he said he expressed his and Barr’s condolences. He said Garner’s death is a tragedy and that “for anyone to die under circumstances like these is a tremendous loss.”
The head of Pantaleo’s union said Garner’s death was an “undeniable tragedy,” but that the officer did not cause it.
“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,” said Pat Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association.
Officers were attempting to arrest Garner on charges he sold loose, untaxed cigarettes outside a Staten Island convenience store. He refused to be handcuffed, and officers took him down.
Garner is heard on bystander video crying out “I can’t breathe” at least 11 times before he falls unconscious. He later died.
A state grand jury had also refused to indict the officer on criminal charges.