Prosecutor to convene grand jury in chokehold death, prompting mixed reactions

Staten Island district attorney Daniel Donovan will convene a grand jury in the apparent chokehold death of Eric Garner. While some have praised the move, the black community is skeptical.

Bob Bennett/New York City Mayoral Photography Office/AP/File
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio sits between New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton (l.) and the Rev. Al Sharpton during a round table discussion convened on July 31 to ease tensions over the July 17 death of Eric Garner.

A Staten Island prosecutor announced Tuesday that he will convene a special grand jury to consider charges in the apparent chokehold death of Eric Garner in July.

During the grand jury deliberations, which are expected to start next month, jurors will hear evidence put forth by prosecutors to decide if any officers – including Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City policeman who allegedly asphyxiated Mr. Garner – should be indicted.

While the move by Staten Island district attorney Daniel Donovan garnered praise from city politicians and police advocacy groups, it was met by skepticism among leaders of the black community. They question whether Mr. Donovan, a Republican, can conduct an impartial investigation given his close ties with police in the borough.

These leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, are calling on Donovan to file criminal charges or hand the case over to the US Department of Justice.

“This announcement does not impact our move for federal takeover of this case at all,” Mr. Sharpton said in a statement.

Donovan, however, says the concerns of black leaders are misplaced, as he has pledged to conduct an exhaustive investigation, free of favoritism.

“With a full appreciation that no person is above the law, nor beneath its protection, I assure the public that I am committed to conducting a fair, thorough, and responsible investigation into Mr. Garner’s death, and that I will go wherever the evidence takes me, without fear or favor,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

Among Donovan’s supporters is progressive New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who said he was “pleased” with the announcement; and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which said its members were not surprised by the move and were glad to see the investigation progressing.

According to The New York Times, Donovan has received several endorsements from officers’ groups in the past, and he has made it a policy not to accept plea bargains when it comes to assaults on public employees, including police officers.

He also tends to be less sympathetic to persons who commit minor crimes – such as selling loose, untaxed cigarettes as Garner was allegedly doing when he was killed – than other district attorneys in New York City.

At the same time, he has a reputation for putting “professional obligation over personal loyalty,” a quality that came to the fore in 2007 when he recused himself from a case involving the son of former Staten Island borough president and close personal friend James Molinaro.

That decision led to an unsuccessful smear campaign by Mr. Molinaro against Donovan in the Staten Island Advance, just as the district attorney was running for reelection. Despite being accused of abdicating his responsibilities, Donovan won easily.

Garner’s death occurred on July 17, as Mr. Pantaleo was arresting him. In an amateur video of the altercation, Garner shouts, “I can’t breathe!” as Pantaleo appears to place the suspect in a chokehold. Chokeholds violate New York Police Department guidelines.

A second video, presumably shot later during the incident, shows Garner lying motionless on the cement before medical workers arrive three minutes into the clip. When asked by bystanders why they weren’t performing CPR on Garner – who had asthma – police officers said that he was breathing.

When EMTs arrived, they checked Garner’s pulse and loaded him into an ambulance two minutes later.

Pantaleo was stripped of his badge and his gun after the incident, and another policeman was placed on administrative duty.

According to legal experts, an indictment of Pantaleo on charges of murder is unlikely, but a lesser homicide charge, such as second-degree manslaughter, is possible.

• This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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