Justice Department to open civil rights inquiry into Eric Garner’s death

Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.
(David Goldman / Associated Press)

U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Wednesday that the Justice Department would open a federal criminal investigation into the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police.

A Staten Island, N.Y., grand jury decided against indicting the police officer involved in the July 17 chokehold death of Garner.

Holder, speaking at the Justice Department, promised “an independent, thorough, fair and expeditious investigation” into Garner’s death.

“This is not a New York issue,” said Holder, who has several times spoken about his own concerns with police growing up as black man in New York. “We must seek to heal the breakdown in trust that we have seen.

“We have all seen the video of Mr. Garner’s death. His death was, of course, a tragedy. All lives must be valued, all lives.”


The Justice Department has previously stepped in when local or state prosecutors decide not to indict or convict suspects in high-profile civil rights cases, often involving accusations of police misconduct or racism.

Holder has also opened a federal criminal investigation into the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

Experts predicted that a federal prosecution into the Staten Island death would be easier to win than the case involving Brown, thanks largely to a videotape of Garner’s choking by a police officer.

Also, it is generally easier to prove police misconduct in a beating case than in one involving use of a fire arm, in part because shootings involve split-second decisions that are difficult to second-guess, a former federal prosecutor said.

“It’s easier in that it is not a shooting, and shootings are less often indicted,” said William Yeomans, an American University law professor who formerly headed the Justice Department civil rights division.

He called the video of Garner’s death “gut wrenching,” but said prosecutors would still need to show that police Officer Daniel Pantaleo or his fellow arresting officers “acted with intent to use more force than reasonably necessary under the circumstances.”

The use of a chokehold could also help federal prosecutors build their case since it is generally prohibited under New York City Police Department regulations, he said.

“If they are trained not to use a chokehold, then that is certainly a relevant consideration because the officer clearly did use a chokehold,” Yeomans said.

In a possible political complication to the federal case, Holder is planning to step down from his post early next year and his replacement, if confirmed by the Senate, is Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York who had jurisdiction over Staten Island.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he was confident that Lynch could oversee the case.

“I am confident that Loretta Lynch will conduct a tough but fair investigation into the tragic death of Eric Garner,” Schumer said. “She is both a consummate professional with a strong commitment to justice, and has a close working relationship with the New York City law enforcement community.”