A federal civil rights investigation into the death while in police custody of Eric Garner has been moving forward in New York, but its future is uncertain as a U.S. attorney general with a law-and-order bent takes over the Justice Department.
Two people with inside knowledge of the probe say a federal grand jury in Brooklyn met this month to hear testimony about Garner’s deadly confrontation with New York Police Department officers on Staten Island in 2014.
Garner’s dying words, “I can’t breathe,” became a slogan for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The federal inquiry, which began after a state grand jury declined to charge Officer Daniel Pantaleo, already stalled once last year when the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn expressed doubt that there was enough evidence for a criminal case.
Their hesitation resulted in the Justice Department, in the waning months of President Barack Obama’s term, dispatching Washington-based prosecutors to New York to forge ahead. It is unclear whether new Attorney General Jeff Sessions will take an interest in the case.
Sessions has the power to freeze the investigation and order a review by the Civil Rights Division under new leadership for the unit “that reflects his ideology,” said former federal prosecutor David Weinstein.
Sessions had been a vocal critic of Obama’s aggressive response to allegations of police misconduct, including imposing federal oversight on some departments. At a 2015 Senate hearing, he said “there’s a perception, not altogether unjustified, that the Civil Rights Division goes beyond fair and balanced treatment.”
Given Sessions’s background, “the odds are longer it’s going to result in an indictment,” said Weinstein.
If Sessions’s Justice Department decides not to go forward, the inquiry could end by simply letting the 18-month limit for a special grand jury expire without a vote on an indictment, he said.
Trump told a conference of police department officials two weeks ago that their officers “are entitled to an administration that has their back.”
But in 2014, he also singled out Pantaleo for criticism, though he didn’t identify him by name.
“That chokehold was terrible,” Trump said. “That cop was so aggressive, it was ridiculous. I don’t know where he came from, but that was a ridiculous situation to do. I mean if it’s anything like we see … you know what we saw was a terrible situation.”