A producer just asked me what the decision to not indict the New York City police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner “says about the state of black justice in America.” I’ll tell you what I told her. Apparently, there is no justice because that would imply there was a trial by a jury. A decision to not indict forestalls even that.
Officer Daniel Pantoleo violated police department policy by using a chokehold on Garner, who was being arrested for selling loose cigarettes. The entire encounter was clearly captured on video. A grisly scene where an unarmed Garner can be heard saying over and over again “I can’t breathe.” The medical examiner said the chokehold contributed to Garner’s death, which was declared a homicide. Despite all of that, a grand jury opted not to indict Pantoleo.
Now, let’s keep something in mind. A grand jury proceeding is not a trial by jury. There are no cross examinations or findings of fact. An indictment by a grand jury simply allows the prosecution to go to trial against someone suspected of a crime. At the jury trial, where the rules of evidence are higher, the adversarial nature of defense and prosecution plays out before a jury and cross examinations lengthy and brutal, is where justice is meted out. Alleged suspects are held accountable in a court of law by a jury of their peers with a verdict of innocent or guilty. Americans might not like the verdict, but they trust this part of the system. The jury trial process underpins their faith in the entire criminal justice system. The grand jury decision not to indict in Garner’s death severely undermines that faith.
What happened today shows that there can be no justice for Garner — or anyone else, especially if they are African American, who might find themselves in similar tragic circumstances.
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