Civil Rights Prosecutors Recommend Charges to Justice Department in Eric Garner Death

Gwen Carr held a photo of her son, Eric Garner, who died on a Staten Island street in 2014 after a police officer used a chokehold to subdue him.
Mark Kauzlarich/The New York Times

Federal civil rights prosecutors have recommended charges against a New York police officer in the 2014 death of Eric Garner, three current and former officials said, but top Justice Department officials have expressed strong reservations about whether to move forward with a case they say may not be winnable.

Mr. Garner died on a Staten Island street after the police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, used a chokehold to subdue him. Officers had confronted Mr. Garner, who was unarmed, over accusations of selling untaxed cigarettes. His final gasps of “I can’t breathe,” captured on a cellphone video, became a rallying cry for protesters around the country.

In recent weeks, career prosecutors recommended civil rights charges against Officer Pantaleo and sought approval from the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, to seek an indictment, according to the officials. Mr. Rosenstein has convened several meetings that revealed divisions within the Justice Department over whether to move forward. No decision has been made, but one law enforcement official said that, based on the discussions so far, it appeared unlikely that Mr. Rosenstein would approve charges.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also been briefed on the case and could weigh in after Mr. Rosenstein makes his own recommendation, officials said.

The death of Mr. Garner, along with the shooting death a month later of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and several other high-profile police encounters ignited the most significant debate over the use of force by police officers since the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991.

The federal inquiry into Mr. Garner’s death dragged on for years and has divided the Justice Department investigative team since the Obama administration. Prosecutors in New York argued against bringing charges, while civil rights prosecutors in Washington said it represented a clear case of excessive force. In the final months of the administration, the attorney general at the time, Loretta E. Lynch, sided with her civil rights chief, Vanita Gupta, and authorized prosecutors to build a case for indictment.

Mr. Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, said on Friday that Justice Department officials had promised to tell her when a decision was made. “I haven’t heard anything,” she said. “I’m hopeful. But we’ll never know until there’s a decision.”

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SOURCE: NY Times, Matt Apuzzo