Attorney General William Barr made the decision not to bring federal civil rights charges against the New York Police Department officer accused of fatally choking Eric Garner, siding with a Justice Department team from New York over the Civil Rights Division in Washington due to concerns that prosecutors could not successfully prove the officer acted willfully, a senior Justice Department official said.
The decision to not pursue the charges against the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, came after a dispute between the teams, the official said. Barr made the decision after viewing the video showing Garner’s takedown several times and quizzing both groups of attorneys.
It is not unusual for the attorney general, as the head of the Justice Department, to make final prosecution calls.
The divide between New York prosecutors and civil rights officials in Washington, DC, existed as well under the Obama administration, creating a stalemate that left the case unresolved before Donald Trump was elected President in 2016, CNN has reported.
Under disagreement was whether or not the evidence in the case could meet the high legal standard that Pantaleo, beyond a reasonable doubt, acted willfully.
“This is the highest standard of intent imposed by law,” Richard P. Donoghue, the US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in a news conference Tuesday. “While willfulness may be inferred from blatantly wrongful conduct such as a gratuitous hit to the head, an officer’s mistake, fear, misperception or even poor judgment does not constitute willful conduct under federal criminal civil rights law.”
The years-long investigation turned on seven critical seconds in a video that showed Pantaleo with his arms around Garner’s neck in an apparent chokehold. The officer appeared, in a cell phone video, to have Garner in a chokehold shortly before he died, though Pantaleo denies that he used a chokehold.
The senior official said attorneys reviewing the case considered it important that the responding police officers also attempted techniques that were not chokeholds, and that Pantaleo transitioned in and out of the move, in a “very dynamic situation.”
Federal authorities had a deadline of Wednesday — five years since Garner’s death — to decide whether to bring charges against Pantaleo.
The decision announced Tuesday means that Pantaleo will not face any criminal charges related to Garner’s death. Federal investigators have been examining the circumstances of Garner’s death since 2014, after a grand jury in New York declined to indict the Staten Island officer. The city of New York settled with Garner’s estate for $5.9 million in 2015.
The NYPD has brought departmental charges against Pantaleo. If found guilty of using the chokehold and restricting Garner’s breathing, he could face discipline ranging from loss of vacation days to the loss of his job.
This story is breaking and will be updated.