As a Black Man, I’m Outraged at the Grand Jury in Eric Garner’s Case; as a Lawyer, I’m Disgusted

Police officers arrest Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., July 17, 2014.

By now you know. A Staten Island, N.Y., grand jury decided not to indict New York City police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choking death of Eric Garner.

As a black man, I’m outraged by this result. And as a lawyer who defends cases on the criminal side and prosecutes cases on the civil side, I’m appalled. I never expected the grand jury to indict Pantaleo for murder, but I certainly expected a lesser charge, since there was video evidence that strongly supported the theory that a banned choke hold was used, and showed Garner pleading for his life as police did nothing.


The special grand jury would have needed 12 of at least 16 members listening to the case to vote in favor of indicting Pantaleo for him to be held criminally liable. Jurors started hearing testimony and reviewing evidence in September, with the last witness being Pantaleo himself, testifying on Nov. 21 for approximately two hours. The other officers who assisted in the “arrest” were provided immunity by the prosecution, and they will not be criminally liable for Garner’s death.

Although it was always unlikely that Pantaleo would be indicted for murder—which is intentionally causing the death of Garner—the grand jury could have indicted Pantaleo on a lesser charge, which would have made Pantaleo criminally liable, even if there was no finding of intent.


Under New York law, if the grand jury did not feel that Pantaleo intended to kill Garner, it still could have considered a first-degree manslaughter charge, which is causing the death of someone because there was intent to cause serious injury. Or it could have considered second-degree manslaughter, charging that the choking recklessly caused Garner’s death—with “reckless” meaning that someone died because of someone else’s careless disregard for that person’s life.

But the grand jury looked at the evidence, and there weren’t enough votes to indict Pantaleo for Garner’s death on any of these charges. And with a “no bill,” or no indictment, the grand jury essentially stated that it found no probable cause that Pantaleo’s actions were in any way criminal.


It’s all particularly shocking in a case in which a video shows Pantaleo using a choke hold on Garner that’s been banned by the New York City Police Department—and when the medical examiner’s report concluded that Garner’s death was caused by the choke hold that the officer used.

As we’ve seen in a number of recent high-profile cases, like the killing of teenager Michael Brown by then-Officer Darren Wilson, it’s difficult to indict police in death cases that happen while they’re on duty. But the Garner case is different because of what we were all able to see on the video: Garner struggling for breath and saying, “I can’t breathe,” while officers stand by watching.


In these circumstances, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the grand jury has sent a reminder to the world that a black man’s life meant little to it. It’s outrageous, disgusting and a shame.

Eric Guster is a civil rights and criminal-defense trial lawyer. He appears regularly on HLN, MSNBC, Fox and CNN as a legal analyst and commentator. Follow him on Twitter. Like The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.  

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