The U.S. Department of Justice will not pursue federal charges against a New York City police officer in the death of 43-year-old Eric Garner, whose famous last words — "I can't breathe" — became a rallying cry against police brutality in the U.S.
On July 17, 2014, Garner died after being arrested for allegedly selling loose cigarettes in the Staten Island borough of New York City. Video footage shot by his friend, Ramsey Orta, showed a police officer putting his arm around Garner's neck and compressing his windpipe. Garner told the officer in the video, Daniel Pantaleo, that he couldn't breathe 11 times. Pantaleo didn't stop. His death amplified a crisis to the national level: Police brutality against Black people is rampant.
Five years later, the United States Justice Department has decided not to pursue federal charges against Pantaleo, whose chokehold triggered what a doctor called a "fatal asthma attack," per New York magazine. (Pantaleo denies this, claiming that he never put Garner in a chokehold, despite video evidence that depicts just that; Internal Affairs later ruled that he had used an improper chokehold during the arrest.) In August 2014, the New York City medical examiner's office had ruled Garner's death a homicide.
According to CNN, it was Attorney General William Barr who made the final decision against pressing charges. The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division had reportedly advocated for criminal charges, USA Today notes.
According to U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue, who addressed reporters on Tuesday, "Mr. Garner’s death was a tragedy. But these unassailable facts are separate and distinct from whether a federal crime has been committed. And the evidence here does not support charging police Officer Daniel Pantaleo with a federal criminal civil rights violation." Per CNN, he also said there was insufficient evidence to prove Pantaleo acted "willfully" in his arrest.
"Five years later and there's still no justice," Garner's daughter Emerald Garner said in a press conference in Brooklyn. She cited the end of the statute of limitations on the case — five years to the day of her father's death — and urged NYPD to fire Pantaleo, who has been on desk duty since July 2014.
Garner also paid tribute to her sister, Erica, who died in 2017 at the age of 27. She had suffered a heart attack, four months after giving birth to a baby boy, whom she named Eric. After her father's death, Garner had become a prominent activist and key figure of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The family isn't giving up. Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, told reporters: “We might not never know justice in the DOJ, but I think there will be justice, and we’re going to keep fighting. We’re not going away, so you can forget that.”