Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City police officer accused of using a chokehold that contributed to Eric Garner’s death in 2014, will not face civil-rights or criminal charges for the death of the 43-year-old father of six, federal prosecutors announced Tuesday.
“Let me say as clear and equivocally as I can that Mr. Garner’s death was a tragedy,” U.S. attorney Richard Donoghue told reporters Tuesday. “But these unassailable facts are separate and distinct from whether federal crime has been committed. And the evidence here does not support charging police Officer Daniel Pantaleo with a federal criminal civil rights violation.”
The decision was not unanimous. USA Today reports that officials in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division wanted to bring a criminal charge against Pantaleo and prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York office did not. Attorney General William Barr reportedly made the final call, siding with those opposed to charging Pantaleo.
Following the announcement of the decision, Garner’s daughter Emerald told the media that “Pantaleo needs to be fired! He needs to be fired.”
The announcement comes nearly five years to the day after Garner was killed while in police custody, galvanizing the Black Lives Matter movement and sparking protests locally and nationally. The incident took place on a Staten Island sidewalk after police confronted Garner because they thought he was selling loose cigarettes. In the ensuing struggle, Pantaleo put Garner in a chokehold, compressing his windpipe for at least 15 seconds as other officers helped hold Garner down. In videos of the encounter, Garner can be heard saying, “I can’t breathe.” An hour later he was dead.
Earlier this year, a doctor who performed an autopsy on Eric Garner testified that Pantaleo’s chokehold triggered a fatal asthma attack in Garner. “It is my opinion that the injury, the chokehold, the chest compression, set in motion a lethal sequence of events,” Dr. Floriana Persechino said at the NYPD disciplinary hearing for Pantaleo. The results of that trial are still pending a decision from NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill.
In a statement to the media Tuesday, Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, called for O’Neill to “make the right decision.” She added: “Officer Pantaleo and all the officers that were involved in my son’s death that day need to be off the force. The streets of New York City are not safe with them walking around.”
So far, Pantaleo’s only punishment for his role in Garner’s death has been relegation to desk duty. In December of 2014, a grand jury in Staten Island declined to indict Pantaleo. The following year, Garner’s family won a $5.9 million settlement with the city of New York to resolve a wrongful death claim.
Pantaleo has long denied using a banned chokehold on Garner, telling Internal Affairs in 2014 that “there was no pressure to the neck.” But Internal Affairs investigators disagreed, determining that Pantaleo had in fact used an improper chokehold and recommending disciplinary charges that never materialized.
At Pantaleo’s disciplinary hearing this year, his defense team trotted out another defense of the 34-year-old officer. It didn’t matter if Pantaleo had put Garner in a chokehold or not. Garner died due to his obesity, they argued. “He was a ticking time bomb that resisted arrest. If he was put in a bear hug, it would have been the same outcome,” said Stuart London, the lead police union attorney representing Pantaleo.