A federal grand jury has begun hearing evidence in the death of a 43-year-old Staten Island man whose videotaped takedown by New York City police officers sparked national outrage, according to an official familiar with the case and an attorney for one of the officers involved.
Federal prosecutors, including at least one from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, began presenting evidence Wednesday in the case of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after he was taken to the ground by New York City police officers and put in what appeared to be a chokehold. The incident, which was caught on tape, ignited protests across the country, and Garner’s gasping “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for those upset about the treatment of African Americans by police.
The empaneling of a federal grand jury, which was first reported by the New York Daily News and confirmed by others, is a significant step, signaling that prosecutors are taking the matter seriously and an officer or officers could be charged. The grand jurors would be looking at whether Garner’s civil rights were violated and whether an officer or officers could be held criminally accountable.
Federal investigators, though, sometimes use the grand jury process merely to further their investigations, and it is far from certain any charges would be returned. A Staten Island grand jury declined to bring charges in the case late in 2014.
At the center of the case is Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who on the video seems to be putting Garner in a chokehold. Stuart London, Pantaleo’s attorney, said Pantaleo was “obviously concerned” that a federal grand jury was looking into the matter, though he was unsure exactly what that meant.
London said he had learned about the grand jury via news reports and his contacts in the justice system.
“It certainly gets my attention when they convene a grand jury, but it doesn’t always mean there will be a criminal indictment,” London said. London said Pantaleo “testified in front of a state grand jury with no true bill, and from his perspective, he thought this was over.”
“He never feels that he violated any federally protected right,” London said. “He was really just making a simple street arrest in a situation that had a tragic consequence.”
Garner initially drew the attention of police for selling loose cigarettes. The city of New York reached a civil settlement with his family last year for $5.9 million. An attorney for the family could not be reached Thursday.
London said Pantaleo had not been called to testify in front of the grand jury. He declined to comment on reports saying prosecutors had offered him the opportunity to talk to them in a different setting.
Spokeswomen for the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York declined to comment for this article.