Eric Garner

Sometimes Cameras Don't Help: Grand Jury Declines to Indict Cop Who Put Eric Garner in Fatal Chokehold


Eric Garner in chokehold

A grand jury empaneled in Staten Island to decide whether to charge Officer Daniel Pantaleo over the death of Eric Garner has declined to forward any charges to the prosecutor. Pantaleo put Garner in a fatal chokehold after the 300 pound man was accused of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, something he vehemently denied. The incident was caught on tape but it didn't help produce an indictment.

Grand juries, which rely on vigorous prosecutors, usually don't end up indicting cops. As Alex Vitale explained at Al-Jazeera America:

There are major legal, institutional and social impediments to prosecuting police. Thousands of officers are involved in shootings every year, resulting in about 400 deaths annually. However, successful criminal prosecution of a police officer for killing someone in the line of duty, if no corruption is alleged, is extremely rare. Even when officers are convicted, the charges are often minimal. For example, Coleman Brackney, a Bella Vista, Oklahoma, police officer who was convicted of misdemeanor negligent homicide in 2010 after shooting an unarmed teen to death while in custody in his cruiser, went on to rejoin the police and was recently appointed chief of police in Sulphur Springs, Oklahoma.

There are significant structural barriers to successful police indictment or prosecution. For one, investigations are usually conducted by a combination of police detectives and investigators from the prosecutors' office. Prosecutors tend to take a greater role when there is a reason to believe that the shooting might not be justified. However, they must rely on the cooperation of the police to gather necessary evidence, including witness statements from the officer involved and other officers at the scene. In some cases they are the only living witnesses to the event.

Other hurdles include the deference to cops individuals chosen by prosecutors as grand jurors tend to have, and laws that permit law enforcement officials wider latitude in the use of force than "civilians."

And sometimes, even an indictment doesn't help. Another New York City cop, Richard Haste, was indicted on charges of manslaughter by a grand jury for the killing of Ramarley Graham after pursuing him into his grandmother's house over a trivial amount of marijuana.

A judge threw that indictment out—claiming the prosecutor erred by not informing the grand jury that Haste claimed other officers told him Graham was armed. With that information, a second grand jury declined to indict. The officers who allegedly told Haste, wrongly, that Graham was armed weren't charged with their role in Graham's death either. 

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