Policing

Garner case shakeup

New York FBI agents are taken off the case after failing to indict Officer Pantaleo

New York FBI agents booted from Eric Garner case

The Department of Justice is replacing agents investigating the death of Eric Garner, whose case has been at an impasse due to a disagreement between New York-based FBI agents and Washington officials over whether the incident warranted federal charges, the New York Times reported.

Garner, 43, was killed in July 2014 in a confrontation in Staten Island with police who put him in a chokehold while attempting to arrest him. His final words, “I can’t breathe,” were caught on cell-phone video and became a rallying cry for protests against the police in cities across the country.  

Two officers attempted to subdue Garner by wrestling him to the ground after they accused him of selling loose cigarettes. Officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a chokehold, a maneuver prohibited by the New York Police Department’s patrol guide, when he stopped breathing.

Garner’s death was ultimately ruled a homicide, but a state grand jury determined that Pantaleo was not culpable for his death and declined to indict him in December 2014, prompting a fresh wave of protests across New York City. Days later, former Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would proceed with a federal civil rights investigation into Garner’s death.

Over the past few weeks, FBI agents who were investigating the case have been replaced with agents from outside New York, five federal officials told the New York Times. Similarly, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have also been removed from the case, and replaced with civil rights prosecutors from D.C. The case will hinge on whether prosecutors can present enough evidence to a federal grand jury in Brooklyn to prove that Pantaleo committed a crime and violated Garner’s civil rights.

The case will be familiar to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who was serving as the attorney for the Eastern District of New York and oversaw the federal inquiry into Garner’s death before her appointment to the AG post. It was Lynch, the Times reported, who made the move to take over Garner’s case.

Stuart London, a lawyer representing Pantaleo, isn’t happy with the shift. “If it is true that the Justice Department is rejecting the recommendations of seasoned FBI agents and assistant United States attorneys, this is a gross miscarriage of justice,” he said.

Last year, the City of New York settled a lawsuit brought by Garner’s widow for $5.9 million. Pantaleo has been kept on desk duty pending the outcome of the criminal investigations.

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