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NYPD Officer Involved In Eric Garner's Death Won't Face Federal Charges

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Five years after Eric Garner died after a chokehold while in police custody, federal prosecutors have made a decision. They will not charge a New York City police officer involved in his death. Prosecutors cited insufficient evidence against Daniel Pantaleo. Garner's dying words, I can't breathe, which he said again and again, became a national rallying cry and a flashpoint in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Those unhappy with the lack of federal prosecution include Josie Duffy Rice, president of The Appeal, a news site that focuses on criminal justice. She's also co-host of the podcast "Justice In America." Good morning to you.

JOSIE DUFFY RICE: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: What led the Justice Department to look into Garner's case?

DUFFY RICE: You know, it was a long process of five years over four different attorney generals that have been looking into this case at the DOJ. And that came in kind of after the Staten Island district attorney decided not to charge Daniel Pantaleo in this case almost five years ago in December of 2014. So kind of in light of the moment of police brutality being filmed, seeing case after case of men and women being killed by the police, especially unarmed black and brown men and women, the Department of Justice decided that they were going to bring an investigation.

INSKEEP: OK. But now let's look at this decision. We now have two different prosecutors. We have a local prosecutor, we have federal prosecutors who have looked into this, and both said, insufficient evidence. I realize there's a video. People have seen it. People heard Garner's words. People feel they know a lot about this, but twice now prosecutors have looked into this and just found there's not enough to charge the officer who says he thought he was doing his duty as he saw it at the time. Is there any justification for that point of view?

DUFFY RICE: Well, first, I'd say that while two prosecutors, both the Staten Island and the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, have decided not to bring charges, we also saw that the Office of Civil Rights at DOJ did think that this is a case that deserved charges to be brought. So there is some back and forth on how prosecutors more broadly are looking at this case.

But it's very difficult - right? - to charge police officers in these cases because functionally they have to prove that they willfully used excessive force. And that's a very, very high standard to have to prove.

INSKEEP: Oh, sure because you have to know somebody's intent, what was in their mind at the time.

DUFFY RICE: Right. And as long as an officer can make a case that he, quote, unquote, "feared for his life," he has a very, very high chance of getting off. We see it time after time in cases across the country where prosecutors are very, very hesitant to even bring charges against someone like Officer Pantaleo.

INSKEEP: Could the attorney general, though, have made a different decision within the law even giving the - given what the law says about police officers?

DUFFY RICE: Absolutely. He could have brought charges, right? That's not - that doesn't mean a conviction. He could have made a case that there is an argument that the officer acted out of hand, that he violated the civil rights of Eric Garner and caused his death. And he could have brought charges. In fact, the Office of Civil Rights at DOJ recommended that. But what we see is that Attorney General Barr has decided that he doesn't think that that's - that he can win this case or he doesn't think it's a case worth bringing.

INSKEEP: OK. Ms. Rice, thanks so much.

DUFFY RICE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Josie Duffy Rice is an attorney and journalist who advocates for criminal justice reform. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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