NEW YORK — Federal prosecutors won’t bring civil rights charges against a New York City police officer in the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner, a decision made by Attorney General William Barr and announced one day before the five-year anniversary of his death, officials said.
The announcement of the decision not to bring charges against officer Daniel Pantaleo comes a day before the statute of limitations was set to expire in the case that produced the words “I can’t breathe” — among Garner’s final words — as a rallying cry among protesters of the police treatment of black suspects.
“The evidence here does not support [o]fficer Daniel Pantaleo or any other officer with a federal civil rights violation,” said Richard Donoghue, the U.S. attorney for eastern New York. “Even if we could prove that [o]fficer Pantaleo’s hold of Mr. Garner constituted unreasonable force, we would still have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that [o]fficer Pantaleo acted willfully in violation of the law.”
Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, and the Rev. Al Sharpton said they were outraged and heartbroken. Sharpton called for Pantaleo’s dismissal from the police force.
“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 Associated Press that prosecutors watched video of the confrontation “countless” times but weren’t convinced Pantaleo acted willfully in the seconds after the chokehold was applied.
There were two sets of recommendations made. The Eastern District of New York recommended no charges, but Justice Department civil rights prosecutors in Washington, D.C., recommended charging the officer. Barr made the ultimate decision, the official said.
The official said Barr watched the video himself and got several briefings.
Prosecutors had to examine Pantaleo’s state of mind, and it would be a “high standard” to prove the case to a jury, the official said. Prosecutors also considered whether he violated department’s policy on chokeholds.
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.
“I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for police reform activists, coming amid a stretch of other deaths of black men at the hands of white officers. Garner was black; Pantaleo is white. Protests erupted around the country, and police reform became a national discussion.
Balsamo reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Colleen Long in Washington, Tom Hays in New York and Karen Matthews in New York contributed to this report.