Eric Garner's Legal Aid Society Lawyers Speak Out (Statement from Seymour W. James, Jr., Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society)
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 04, 2014

Yesterday NYC added another case to the shameful list of incidents that demonstrate the failure in America to provide equal justice. The Staten Island District Attorney's office, armed with clear and uninterrupted video documentation, failed to obtain an indictment against the police officer who caused the death of Eric Garner.

Eric Garner was a son, husband, father and by all accounts, a gentle man. Certainly, we all saw his response on the video that has played in the media a million times. On July 17, 2014 Eric Garner was not resisting arrest. As far too many of our clients tell us every day, their lives are interrupted routinely by officers enforcing "quality of life" crimes. Eric Garner was one of these clients. He simply had had enough of the constant, discriminatory harassing by police officers from the 120th precinct. Despite his frustration, he had his hands up and did not resist. While surrounded by other officers he was placed in a chokehold, which was prohibited by New York Police Department regulations, and dragged to the ground by PO Pantaleo. He simply repeated "I can't breathe" until he no longer could breathe and died.

Yet, despite what everyone saw on that video, there will be no trial of Officer Pantaleo, nor will there be a jury to weigh the evidence or render a verdict. In fact, there was never even an arrest of Officer Pantaleo. Throughout this entire process, he has been free to go about his life, live in his community, and remain with his family and friends while Eric Garner's family has been deprived of his presence for the rest of their lives. Police Officer Pantaleo's lawyer says the officer did not intend to harm Mr. Garner. Even if that were true, Police Officer Pantaleo engaged in reckless behavior in violation of Police Department rules by placing Mr. Garner in a chokehold that caused his death. Those actions should have resulted in an indictment for Manslaughter, or at the very least, Criminally Negligent Homicide.

As this city's primary public defender, responsible for representing over 220,000 New Yorkers accused of crimes and over 3500 young people prosecuted in family court, we know that the process used to "investigate" Eric Garner's death was not the same one used against our clients. Unlike Officer Pantaleo, our clients are arrested first with little to no investigation of any facts. While they are under investigation, they are not home with their families sharing holidays. They are in jail because, despite a constitutional presumption of innocence, bail is often set before a grand jury ever hears any evidence. The grand jury that hears evidence against our clients is not a special one convened months after the incident for just one case. When a District Attorney seeks an indictment against our clients, they present witnesses and ask questions with a plan as to what charges they want the grand jury to consider and they actively try to get the grand jury to vote their way. The evidence they present is often selected to strengthen their case and insure the case will go forward. Almost always, they get what they want. For our clients, it is as easy as indicting a ham sandwich.

One must ask why it is different for police officers and we are outraged that it is. Today we are filing a motion with the court requesting that the entire grand jury proceedings be unsealed to the public. We believe that an indictment in this case, given the video and the medical examiner's report, should have occurred. In light of the fact that the grand jury chose not to indict Officer Pantaleo, the public has the right to evaluate whether or not this proceeding was handled properly and what caused the shocking result of no indictment.

Our problems don't start and stop with the failure of the Staten Island District Attorney to secure an indictment. In communities of color across this city, police policy allows discriminatory over-policing practices under a theory that focuses on arresting people for minor offenses and "quality of life crimes." These policies and practices, which often result in unwarranted and unlawful arrests, coupled with the lack of true accountability, training, supervision and discipline, have brought us to this place where we mourn not only Eric Garner, but countless others like Akai Gurley and Ramarley Graham. While some think that body cameras are the answer, we know it will take more than that. After all, there was video in this case.

Our thoughts are with these families as we call upon the Mayor and Police Commissioner for real change to prevent these tragedies from ever happening again.