Explainer: What You Should Know About the Eric Garner Case
Religion & Liberty Online

Explainer: What You Should Know About the Eric Garner Case

garnerA New York grand jury refused to indict a police officer in the death of a 43-year-old man that was caught on video. Here are some details about the controversial case:

What was the incident that caused Garner’s death?

On July 17, 2014, two New York City police officers, Justin Damico and Daniel Pantaleo, attempted to arrest Eric Garner. When Garner resisted, Pantaleo grabbed him around the neck and tackled him to the ground. As Damico and three other officers assisted in pinning him to the sidewalk, Garner repeated nine times that he couldn’t breath. Garner was 6’3”, 350-pounds, and had a history of medical problems, including asthma.

Although Garner was in obvious respiratory distress, none of the officers or the EMT personnel who arrived on the scene performed CPR. He died of cardiac arrest a few minutes later while on the way to the hospital.

Why was Garner being arrested?

Police say they observed Garner selling untaxed cigarettes, though his family said he didn’t have any of the contraband on him or in his car at the time of his death. Garner had a criminal record that included more than 30 arrests for charges such as assault, resisting arrest, and grand larceny. He was currently out on bail for several misdemeanor charges, including possession or sale of untaxed cigarettes.

What was the cause of death?

The city’s medical examiner’s office said Garner’s death was caused by “compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.” The report also said factors contributing to his death included asthma and heart disease. The report concluded the death was a homicide (i.e., the killing of one human being by another human being).

Who was the officer that was accused of killing Garner?

Daniel Pantaleo is an eight-year NYPD veteran and plainclothes patrolman. Two years ago, he was accused of strip-searching two men in public following a traffic stop and having “slapped” and “tapped” their testicles. Civilian Complaint Review Board deemed the allegation to be unsubstantiated.

After the grand jury decision, Pantaleo issued a statement saying it was “never my intention to harm anyone.”

“I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner,” he said. “My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss.”

Pantaleo is currently on modified duty performing crime analysis. He is still being investigated by the Internal Affairs Bureau, which is looking into his possible use of excessive force and may decide to charge him departmentally.

What type of investigation was conducted?

Independent investigations spanning four months were conducted by the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau, the NYC Medical Examiner, and the Richmond County District Attorney’s Office (which included eight assistant district attorneys and several detective investigators). More than 38 interviews were conducted, and 22 civilian witnesses reportedto have seen some part of the interaction Garner and the police.

special investigative grand jury comprised of 23 members was impanelled specifically for this incident and was dedicated solely to hearing the evidence in this case. All members attended every session from September 20 to December 3. The grand jury heard from all witnesses, examined forensic evidence, and considered all video and photographic evidence. To charge Pantaleo with a crime and send the case to trial, 12 of the jury members would have had to vote that there is legally sufficient evidence and reasonable cause to believe the accused person committed a crime. (For more on how grand juries work, see here.)

For what crime was Officer Pantaleo charged?

Because of the secrecy rules of the grand jury, the specific crime that Pantaleo was being charged with has not been revealed. However, law experts said the grand jury was likely considering charges that included manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and reckless endangerment.

Why were no other officers charged?

Other officers seen on the video restraining Garner on the ground were given immunity in return for their testimony.

Will we get to learn specific details about what the grand jury considered, as in the Michael Brown case?

Maybe. Unlike in some other states, New York law does not allow a district attorney to disclose such information. However, the district attorney has filed a petition with the court to publicly release specific information in connection with the grand jury investigation.

What is a “chokehold”?

A “chokehold” is a general term for a type of grappling hold that critically reduces or prevents either air (choking) or blood (strangling) from passing through the neck of an opponent. Chokeholds are against NYPD policy but they are not currently illegal  under any criminal statute.

Adding to both the confusion and the controversy was the difficulty in determining whether Pantaleo used a chokehold or a “submission hold” (such as a headlock). Submission holds are neither illegal nor forbidden by police policy. News reports claim that police frequently use such grappling moves to subdue resistant suspects. The autopsy did not help clear up the confusion since it showed that neither the windpipe nor neck bones were damaged in the encounter. (An “airchoke” would have likely caused damage to the windpipe, while a “blood choke” could have triggered circulatory problems without causing visible damage to the neck.)

 What happens now?

The U.S. justice department is launching a civil rights investigation into the death of Garner. Attorney General Eric Holder announced “an independent, thorough, fair and expeditious” investigation into potential civil rights violations in the case. He also said the Department of Justice would conduct a “complete review” of material gathered in the local investigation.

Garner’s family has filed a notice of claim to sue the city, its police department, and six of the officers involved for $75 million.

Other posts in this series:

Human Trafficking and Global Efforts to Abolish Slavery  •  Grand Juries  • Who are the Recent Nobel Peace Prize Winners? • What’s Going on with Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’? •  Ebola Crisis •  Scottish Independence •  Obamacare Subsidies Ruling •  Border Crisis • What’s Going on in Iraq? • EPA’s Proposed New Climate Rule • VA Scandal • What is Going on in Vietnam? • Boko Haram and the Kidnapped Christian Girls • The Supreme Court’s Ruling on Government Prayer • Earth Day? • Holy Week? • What’s Going On in Crimea? • What Just Happened with Russia and Ukraine? • What’s Going on in Ukraine • Jobs Report • The Hobby Lobby Amicus Briefs •  Common Core? • What’s Going on in Syria? • What’s Going on in Egypt?

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).