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POLITICS: Justice Dept. brings in new federal prosecutors, FBI agents to work on Eric Garner case

Screen shot from video of Eric Garner's arrest.
Screen shot from video of Eric Garner’s arrest.

In a highly unusual reorganization, the US Justice Dept has taken a series of steps to put the government back on track to seek criminal charges in the Eric Garner case.

In what appears to be a politically-motivated push to “jump-start the long stalled case” – the Justice Dept. has replaced the NY team of agents and lawyers investigating the 43-year-old’s death. Garner died after being stopped by NYPD officers on Staten Island in 2014 for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. Officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner in a chokehold to subdue him, and since then, the case has garnered national media attention and sparked protests across the country.

The feds are investigating whether Garner’s civil rights were violated, despite clear evidence to the contrary—officials familiar with the investigation said. The NY Times reports that federal prosecutors in Brooklyn are no longer assigned to the case, and in recent weeks, local FBI agents have been replaced by agents from outside New York.

Two years ago, then-Attorney General Eric Holder reportedly told colleagues that the evidence was clear and the Justice Dept should bring charges, even if there was a good chance that prosecutors might lose. The Justice Dept has rarely brought charges against individual officers in fatal encounters.

In December of 2014, a state grand jury on Staten Island decided not to indict Officer Pantaleo after he gave testimony that he didn’t mean to put Garner in a chokehold. He stated that “he tried to use a maneuver that involved hooking an arm underneath one of Mr. Garner’s arms while wrapping the other around his torso.”

A bystander’s video supported Pantaleo’s account, said NY prosecutors and FBI agents. DC civil rights lawyers disagreed and said the video showed evidence of “willful wrongdoing.”

The current U.S. attorney general came into office last year, in the middle of the dispute between NY and DC. Federal prosecutors and FBI in NY are opposed to bringing charges in this case, but prosecutors with the civil rights division at the Justice Dept in DC say there is clear evidence to do so, the NY Times reports.

Many experts agree that prosecuting police officers is difficult and another factor complicating matters in this case- the Times reports- is that the dispute between Washington and NY is reflected in FBI reports.

Pantaleo’s attorney maintains that his client never violated anyone’s civil rights. Stuart London added: “If it is true that the Justice Department is rejecting the recommendations of seasoned F.B.I. agents and assistant United States attorneys, this is a gross miscarriage of justice. In our system of justice, politics should never take the place of the rule of law.”

Pantaleo remains on desk duty, as Dept. hearings have been delayed due to the ongoing criminal investigation.


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