MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
I can't breathe. It's been five years since those words - the dying words of an unarmed black man named Eric Garner - became a rallying cry. Garner died during a confrontation with a white police officer in New York. And today the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, Richard P. Donoghue, announced the Justice Department will not bring federal charges against the officer involved in Garner's death.
Cindy Rodriguez from member station WNYC has been following this case. She joins us now. Hey, Cindy.
CINDY RODRIGUEZ, BYLINE: Hi.
KELLY: Hi. So tomorrow actually marks the five-year anniversary of Eric Garner's death. Would you start just by reminding us all of what happened?
RODRIGUEZ: Well, sure. So this all happened in Staten Island on a hot summer day. Officer Daniel Pantaleo along with his partner alleged that Garner was selling loose cigarettes and tried to arrest him. Garner accused the officers of harassing him and threw up his hands so as not to be handcuffed. Pantaleo then grabs Garner around the neck, struggles to bring him down. By then, other officers arrive, and they get on top of Garner, too. Garner's in a prone position. He's gasping for air, and he keeps repeating, as you've said, I can't breathe. This was all caught on a video that went viral. And in New York City, people were outraged, and they took to the streets.
KELLY: So let's fast forward to today. Why did it take federal prosecutors five years to decide not to prosecute?
RODRIGUEZ: Well, U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue acknowledged that the decision should never have taken so long. He called it, quote, "entirely inappropriate and unacceptable." He said it was partly because leadership at the Department of Justice kept changing hands. He said there were as many as five different attorneys general who had considered the case, including two Obama appointees - Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch. Ultimately he said Attorney General William Barr made the final decision. He also said it took a long time because it was a difficult decision.
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RICHARD DONOGHUE: Certainly there was a desire by many people who worked on this case over many years to do everything we could to determine whether charges could be brought. I would say that obviously the fact that it was on video made this different from some other cases where we don't have that sort of compelling evidence up front. But I'm not going to gauge whether it was close or not close. I'm just going to say that we put a lot of time and effort into this.
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, but ultimately he said the evidence fell short.
KELLY: And why? Do we know why the evidence fell short? We just heard him there call the video compelling evidence. So what was missing?
RODRIGUEZ: Well, he said proof that Pantaleo's use of a chokehold was willful, meaning that he intended to use it to harm Eric Garner, was what was missing. And Donoghue also said repeatedly that it was important to note that no one was choking Garner when he was gasping for air.
KELLY: What has been the reaction from the Garner family today?
RODRIGUEZ: Well, they reacted with a lot of outrage and anger. They were insulted by the timing of the announcement - the day before the anniversary of Eric Garner's death. And they were also upset that five years later, no officers have been held accountable. Right now they all remain on the force, collecting salaries and benefits. And this is Gwen Carr, Garner's mother, speaking to reporters after her meeting with federal prosecutors.
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GWEN CARR: We may not never know justice in the DOJ, but I think that there will be justice. And we going to keep fighting, and we going to keep fighting. We're not going away. So you can't forget that.
KELLY: So Cindy, what next? Is this the end, or is it possible that other sorts of charges may be still in the works?
RODRIGUEZ: Well, a Staten Island grand jury also declined to prosecute Officer Pantaleo criminally, so the only thing that's left is his NYPD disciplinary trial. That ended last month. But the administrative trial judge hasn't issued a verdict. The police commissioner will make the final decision. But Gwen Carr says the mayor should fire Pantaleo today. There's rallies and demonstrations coming up tomorrow.
KELLY: All right, that's WNYC Cindy Rodriguez talking about the latest news about Eric Garner. Cindy, thanks very much.
RODRIGUEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.