WASHINGTON ― The Justice Department will not pursue federal civil rights charges against Daniel Pantaleo, the New York City police officer who placed Eric Garner in a chokehold before his death, a person familiar with the case said Tuesday.
The decision came just before the five-year statute of limitations on the case expired. Garner’s cries of “I can’t breathe” as he choked to death prompted a national outcry over the use of force against him.
The incident shouldn’t have ended in Garner’s death but the DOJ was charged with determining whether Pantaleo’s actions purposefully violated federal civil rights law, said a senior Justice Department official speaking on background who had been involved in the case since the beginning.
DOJ officials did not feel convinced that there was evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the officer acted willfully, the official said. It’s hard to thoughtfully apply specific techniques during physical confrontations with resisting parties, the official said. The most challenging part of the case, according to the official, was proving Pantaleo’s state of mind when he put his arm around Garner’s neck and restricted his airflow.
The official said the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and prosecutors in the Eastern District of New York had differing views on the case. EDNY prosecutors consistently believed the evidence was not enough, while Civil Rights Division officials thought there could be a case. Attorney General William Barr was the ultimate decision-maker on the case, and he adopted the EDNY’s position.