Five years of Eric Garner and Daniel Pantaleo proceedings

Black Lives Matter activists protest in Harlem, in the wake of a decision by federal prosecutors who declined to bring civil rights charges against NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo.
Black Lives Matter activists protest in Harlem, in the wake of a decision by federal prosecutors who declined to bring civil rights charges against NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo.
Craig Ruttle/AP/Shutterstock
Black Lives Matter activists protest in Harlem, in the wake of a decision by federal prosecutors who declined to bring civil rights charges against NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo.

Five years of Eric Garner and Daniel Pantaleo proceedings

A timeline of the major legal events since Garner’s death in NYPD custody.
August 19, 2019

More than five years after Eric Garner died on Staten Island in the midst of being arrested for allegedly selling loose cigarettes, New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill fired Officer Daniel Pantaleo on Monday. The move comes after an NYPD trial judge recommended that Pantaleo be fired from the force. She determined that he used a chokehold, a move banned by the NYPD, while subduing Garner.

Garner’s family and civil rights activists have long called for legal accountability for the cops involved, especially Pantaleo, who could be seen in a video taken by bystanders with his arm around Garner’s neck. The police officers holding Garner on the ground ignored his now-famous pleas, “I can’t breathe.” The years since have been marked by delays, protests and court battles – but no punishment for Pantaleo until now. 

A grand jury in New York City did not indict Pantaleo in the death in late 2014. The case hit a milestone four-and-a-half years later on July 16 when the Justice Department announced it would not charge Pantaleo with violating federal civil rights law, ending the possibility of criminal prosecution.

New Yorkers who watched the video may wonder why it has taken so long for the various legal processes to play out. And it may be difficult even to keep track of all that has happened in the different proceedings. Below is a timeline of the major developments in the legal postscript to Garner’s life and tragic death. 

July 17, 2014

Eric Garner died while being arrested. Pantaleo wrapped his arm around Garner’s neck in what appeared to many observers to be a chokehold, which is prohibited by the New York Police Department, while wrestling him to the ground. (Pantaleo’s attorneys dispute that he used a chokehold.) Garner’s last words were “I can’t breathe,” which has since become a rallying cry among Black Lives Matter and other activists protesting against the killings of unarmed black men by police. Although officers called an ambulance, Garner was unresponsive and was pronounced dead at the hospital. 

Aug. 1, 2014

A medical examiner determined Garner’s death to be a homicide caused by the compression of his neck and chest, with his weight, asthma and heart disease as contributing factors.

Oct. 7, 2014

Garner’s family announced its intention to bring a wrongful death lawsuit against New York City for $75 million. 

Dec. 3, 2014

A Staten Island grand jury failed to indict Pantaleo on charges related to Garner’s death, ending the criminal case against the officer. The same day, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would open a federal civil rights investigation in light of the state grand jury’s decision not to press charges. The statute of limitations to bring the federal charges is five years.

March 19, 2015

Staten Island Supreme Court Justice William E. Garnett denied a request to release the transcript of testimony to the 2014 grand jury by civil rights attorneys and then-New York City Public Advocate Letitia James. The decision was upheld twice on appeal.

July 13, 2015 

New York City agrees to pay Garner’s family $5.9 million in an out-of-court settlement. 

Oct. 24, 2016

The New York Times reported that the Justice Department had replaced the agents who had been investigating Garner’s death following the opposition by FBI agents and federal prosecutors in New York to bring charges. The Civil Rights Division in Washington were proponents of bringing charges.

July 16, 2018

Four years after Garner’s death, the NYPD sent a letter to the Justice Department saying that since it had not yet brought federal civil rights charges, the department would begin disciplinary proceedings against Pantaleo. The NYPD had maintained that the Justice Department had requested it not move forward until the federal investigation had concluded. 

July 21, 2018

The NYPD officially filed departmental charges against Pantaleo after getting approval from the Justice Department.

May 13, 2019

The administrative trial for Pantaleo began to determine what, if any, disciplinary actions should be taken. Ordinarily, prosecutors would only need to prove the officer had violated departmental rules. But the trial began well after the 18-month time period misconduct charges could have been brought, necessitating the unusually high bar of proving Pantaleo committed a crime. One of the main threads of the trial has been to determine whether Pantaleo technically used an illegal chokehold. Although the trial has concluded, the NYPD judge has not yet made a ruling. The most severe punishment the judge can recommend is that Pantaleo be fired. The ruling is not binding and the final decision on disciplinary action rests with Police Commissioner James O’Neill, who may ignore and amend the recommendation.

July 16, 2019

A day before the statute of limitations runs out, the Justice Department announced it would not file federal civil rights charges against Pantaleo. The decision ultimately came down to Attorney General William Barr, who decided to follow the earlier opinion of FBI agents and federal prosecutors not to indict.

Aug. 2, 2019

Rosemarie Maldonado, the deputy commissioner for the NYPD who presided over Pantaleo’s disciplinary trial, recommended that he be fired for using a banned chokehold while subduing Garner. However, the final decision on what action to take or not take against Pantaleo rested with O’Neill.

Aug. 19, 2019

About two weeks after Maldonado made her recommendation, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill announced that he had fired Pantaleo for his use of a banned chokehold while arresting Garner, the most severe punishment he could dole out.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.