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Eric Garner Case: Feds Will Not File Civil Rights Charges Against NYPD Officers In Chokehold Death


  • Eric Garner was confronted by NYPD officers for selling cigarettes on July 17, 2014, in Staten Island.
  • Officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner in a headlock or chokehold while arresting him. Garner died shortly after the attempted arrest.
  • Garner's plea of "I can't breathe" became rallying cry in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Federal prosecutors announced Tuesday that they will not file civil rights charges against NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner.

The U.S. attorney said there was a tremendous amount of discussion about what to do with the case. Sources said the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division wanted to bring charges, but prosecutors with the Eastern District of New York disagreed, and U.S. Attorney General William Barr ultimately made the final decision.

"The evidence here does not support charging Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo or any other officer with a federal criminal civil rights violation," U.S. Attorney for Eastern New York Richard Donoghue said. "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."

"An officer's mistake, fear, misperception or even poor judgment does not constitute willful conduct under federal criminal civil rights law," Donoghue added.

Web Extra: U.S. Attorney Speaks After Declining To File Civil Rights Charges

Pantaleo is accused of placing Garner in a chokehold while attempting to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes five years ago on Staten Island. His cries of "I can't breathe" sparked nationwide protests around police reform.

Bed-Stuy United prayer vigil
A Bed-Stuy United prayer vigil attendee wears an "I Can't Breathe" button in support of Eric Garner (credit: Monica Miller/CBS New York)

Sources told CBS News that Barr watched the video of the encounter multiple times before he overruled his own Civil Rights Division and decided not to pursue federal charges in the case.

"The entire world saw the same devastating video five years ago, and our eyes did not lie. Today's inaction reflects a DOJ that has turned its back on its fundamental mission -- to seek and serve justice. In times like these, we must remember that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," New York State Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement Tuesday. "In memory of Eric Garner and all others who have lost their lives unjustly, we will continue to fight for reforms to a criminal justice system that remains broken."

A state grand jury previously declined to indict the officer on criminal charges.

Web Extra: Garner's Family Reacts To Department Of Justice's Decision

"De Blasio, what's up? When are you going to fire this officer?" Garner's daughter, Emerald Garner, said Tuesday outside the U.S. attorney's office.

She did not hold back after learning that no officers would be federally charged in her father's death.

"My father is gone and no one gives a f***. They don't give a f***," she said. "You want us to be calm? You want to send condolences? F*** your condolences."

The announcement came just one day before the U.S. Department of Justice's deadline to file charges. The deadline fell on the five-year anniversary of Garner's death.

Donoghue called the delay in deciding on federal charges "entirely inappropriate."

"This is an outrage, an insult to injury. You killed my son and you won't get away with it," said Garner's mother, Gwen Carr.

"Five years ago, my son said, 'I can't breathe' 11 times. Today, we can't breathe, because they have let us down," she added.

Eric Garner
Eric Garner (credit: CBS2)

Since the 2014 incident, Pantaleo has been on desk duty. He has denied using a chokehold, which is banned under police policy. Union officials and his lawyers said it was a "seatbelt" take-down maneuver that was taught at the police academy. They blamed Garner's poor health for his death.

Donoghue also noted Garner resisted arrest, verbally and physically.

"It is no coincidence that a Grand Jury in NYC and now DOJ, both of which had full access to all of the facts of this case, found no criminality in Police Officer Pantaleo's actions," Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch said in a statement. "In both cases, a careful review of the facts led investigators to the truth. Although Mr. Garner's death was an undeniable tragedy, Police Officer Pantaleo 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. We firmly believe that if the NYPD decides the disciplinary case on the facts, free of improper political influence, that Police Officer Pantaleo, will be fully exonerated of any wrongdoing."

CBSN New York: Former Department Of Investigation Chief Talks On DOJ's Eric Garner Decision

An NYPD disciplinary hearing wrapped up last month. Once the department makes a determination, Pantaleo's fate -- whether he stays, gets punished or even fired -- then lies with Police Commissioner James O'Neill.

"The internal NYPD disciplinary case against Officer Pantaleo is ongoing. Today's announcement by U.S. Department of Justice does not affect this process. To ensure integrity of process, NYPD will not comment further at this time," the NYPD tweeted after Tuesday's announcement.

"We are asking the commissioner to make the right decision," Garner's mother said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a statement Tuesday calling it a "mistake" for the city to wait years for the feds to investigate before starting the disciplinary proceedings.

"With the fifth anniversary of the tragic death of Eric Garner less than 24 hours away, federal law enforcement agencies have just announced they will not pursue charges against Officer Pantaleo. Years ago, we put our faith in the federal government to act. We won't make that mistake again. New York City is not the same city it was five years ago. We are a different city, and we must act like a different city. Moving forward, we will not wait for the federal government to commence our own disciplinary proceedings," the statement read. "Reforms over the last five years have improved relations between our police and our communities. Crime is at record lows, and last year, we arrested 150,000 fewer people than the year before we came into office. This further reform will make sure no family ever waits years for the answers they deserve."

The Rev. Al Sharpton called the decision a slap in the face on the eve of the anniversary of Garner's death. A memorial is planned for 7:30 p.m. at Canaan Baptist Church.

(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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