In an unusual move that could jump-start the stalled investigation into Eric Garner’s death, the Justice Department has reportedly replaced the New York-based team working on the case with outside agents.
Garner died in 2014 after he was placed in an illegal chokehold by Officer Daniel Pantaleo on a street corner in Staten Island. A bystander filmed the interaction, and Garner’s final words — “I can’t breathe” — became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Despite the footage of the encounter, a grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo for Garner’s death, sparking more protests at the end of 2014.
Two years later, Pantaleo, who was put on desk duty, received a substantial pay raise — while the bystander who filmed the encounter, Ramsey Orta, received a four-year jail sentence for separate drugs and weapons charges. Orta has said that since filming Garner’s death, he has been harassed and arrested by the cops in retribution for circulating the footage.
Separately, a federal investigation into whether the officers violated Garner’s civil rights has been ongoing for the past two years. However, according to the New York Times, it’s been slowed down by a dispute between agencies. Federal prosecutors and FBI officials in New York opposed bringing charges, saying they’re skeptical they can prove in court that a crime had been committed, while prosecutors from the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. argued there was enough evidence to do so.
Now, the New York FBI officials have been replaced with outside agents, and prosecutors in Brooklyn are no longer assigned to the case, five federal officials told the Times, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The shakeup could mean that the case may finally move forward — and that criminal charges may be brought against the officers involved in Garner’s death, including Pantaleo. It’s unclear how long the investigation may ultimately continue, or whether the DOJ civil rights prosecutors will be the ones presenting evidence in front of a grand jury if charges are brought.