In an unusual move, Attorney General Loretta Lynch has taken New York-based lawyers and investigators off the team tasked to Eric Garner’s case, meaning the federal criminal investigation into Eric Garner’s death may finally be moving forward — two years after his death.
The investigation into Garner’s 2014 death was stalled due to conflicting opinions on whether or not a criminal case would hold up in court. Federal prosecutors and Federal Bureau of Investigation staffers based in New York were hesitant to move forward, while the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in Washington believes there is sufficient evidence to bring forth federal criminal charges.
Garner died in Staten Island after officers confronted him for selling loose cigarettes. Officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner into a fatal chokehold, at which time Garner uttered his now famous last words, “I can’t breathe,” a phrase that has become symbolic for activists protesting police brutality. Pantaleo has remained on desk duty since the incident.
In December 2014 a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo.
Five federal officials from New York and Washington spoke to the New York Times on the condition of anonymity. According to officials, it is not yet clear if Washington officials would work alone in presenting evidence and eventually trying the case.
A decision on whether to bring forth federal charges is still likely many months away, officials stated, adding that it will not be easy even if a grand jury decides to indict. The Justice Department’s case would go to trial despite the fact that investigators and prosecutors from New York have already stated there is insufficient evidence. According to the officials, the defense could call these FBI agents to testify.
Aftermath of Garner’s Death: Video Footage and Disciplinary Charges
According to Pantaleo, he didn’t mean to put Garner in a chokehold and he feared he would fall through a storefront window during the encounter. New York prosecutors and FBI agents claim video footage of the fatal arrest supports Pantaleo’s account, while Washington-based officials argue it shows Pantaleo’s wrongdoing.
Ramsey Orta, the man who shot the footage of Garner’s death, was recently sentenced to four years in jail on separate charges. He has alleged suffering harassment from law enforcement as retaliation for filming the incident. Meanwhile, in the two years since Garner’s death, Pantaleo has received a substantial pay raise, ThinkProgress reported.
So far only one person has been disciplined in Garner’s death. In January NYPD Sergeant Kizzy Adonis received internal disciplinary charges. Adonis, who is Black, received four counts of “failure to supervise” charges. According to a police source, Adonis faces charges due to her inaction at the scene, saying, “If you look at the video, she just stood there.”
At least one witness to Garner’s arrest provided a different account. The store manager of Bay Beauty Supply (located on Bay Street, where Garner’s arrest and death occurred) said he heard Adonis tell the other officers, “Let him up, you got him already.” One officer looked up but did not let go of Garner.