3 Years After Police Chokehold Death, US Probe Grinds on - NBC Bay Area
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3 Years After Police Chokehold Death, US Probe Grinds on

Department of Justice prosecutors have privately told both the frustrated Eric Garner family and police union attorneys that any decision about whether to charge the officer who killed Garner is months away

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    It has been three years since Eric Garner shouted his final words while in a police chokehold. (Published Monday, July 17, 2017)

    When federal prosecutors asked to meet last month with Eric Garner's family, it stoked speculation that their investigation into his death was finally nearing a resolution three years after his last words — "I can't breathe" — became a rallying cry for protests over police killings of black men.

    The speculation was wrong: The same day of the Brooklyn meeting, a grand jury heard testimony from a police academy instructor on takedown tactics, dragging out a presentation that began last year, said two people familiar with the secret panel's work.

    Department of Justice prosecutors have privately told both the frustrated Garner family and police union attorneys that any decision about whether to charge the officer who killed Garner is months away, according to the people, who weren't authorized to discuss the case and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

    "Three years later," one of Garner's daughters, Erica, tweeted Monday on the anniversary of her father's death. "I have no ... idea what else to do. I really don't. I have turned over every stone."

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    The fits and starts of the Garner investigation stands out from other federal civil rights investigations into police shootings of black men.

    The Justice Department probe of the death Alton Sterling, who was shot by Baton Rouge police while pinned to the ground in July 2016, was wrapped up in 10 months when prosecutors concluded there wasn't enough evidence to bring charges.

    The department's probe of the 2014 police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, ended the same way in March 2015.

    It took less than a year for a federal indictment of an officer who pleaded guilty in the 2015 slaying of Walter Scott in South Carolina.

    There's no time limit for civil rights investigations, but the length of the Garner inquiry is unusual, said Jonathan Smith, a former Justice Department prosecutor. Internal politics or concerns for optics could be stalling an announcement, he added.

    "It's not like there's a lot of (unknown) facts in this case. It was on videotape," he said. "What can be known is going to be known at this point."

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    The widely watched video from July 17, 2014, shows Garner, who had been stopped by officers for selling untaxed cigarettes, telling the officers to leave him alone and refusing to be handcuffed. Officer Daniel Pantaleo responds by putting Garner in an apparent chokehold — banned under New York Police Department policy — as he was taken to the ground.

    The heavyset Garner, who had asthma, is heard gasping, "I can't breathe" before lapsing into unconsciousness. He later was pronounced dead at a hospital.

    The medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide caused in part by the chokehold. But police union officials and Pantaleo's lawyer have argued that the officer used a takedown move taught by the police department, not a chokehold, and that Garner's poor health was the main reason he died.

    The U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn took up the case in 2015 after a state grand jury declined to bring charges against Pantaleo.

    When the local office concluded there wasn't enough evidence to prove the officer deliberately violated Garner's civil rights, the Justice Department — then led by Attorney General Loretta Lynch — assigned prosecutors from Washington to take over and forge ahead.

    One was Forrest Christian, who was involved in the investigation of the New Orleans Police officers who shot six people on the Danziger Bridge after Hurricane Katrina.

    Current Attorney General Jeff Sessions' position on the case is unclear. But the conservative Republican, who has the power to pull the plug on the inquiry, has both criticized the Obama administration's aggressive response to allegations of police misconduct and hailed the guilty plea in the Scott case as demonstrating a commitment to punishing excessive force.

    Both the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn declined to discuss the Garner case. Pantaleo's attorney, Stuart London, had no comment.

    The officer, who has received death threats, also has been silent. He was taken off of patrol after the killing and is working a desk job as he awaits the outcome of the case.

    Even if no criminal charges are brought, the officer could be fired for bungling the arrest.

    "When there's a fatality involved, that has been a career-ender as a practical matter," said Eugene O'Donnell, professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "Whether the officers like it or not, it's better for everyone concerned to get them off the front lines."

    The longer the delay in the Garner case, the more likely it appears Pantaleo won't be charged, said Smith, the former prosecutor.

    "It wouldn't take this long to bring an indictment," he said. "Why and how they are going to release the declination is probably an issue."