What the Grand Jury Knew--and We Didn't--in the Eric Garner Case

Posted: Dec 12, 2014 12:01 PM

In this column, I recently argued in favor of a grand jury’s refusal to indict Officer Dan Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner. To my dismay (and, frankly, shock), a great many “conservatives” and “libertarians,” I’ve had the great misfortune to discover, disagree vehemently with the grand jury’s decision. Some have gone so far as to describe Garner’s death as murder.

Bear in mind, the critics’ knowledge of this case extends no further than a 15 second or so video of the fatal arrest and the fact that Garner was illegally selling cigarettes. That’s it. It is coupled by their belief—one that I share, by the way—that this offense of Garner’s should not be a criminal offense at all. Thus, the police, so goes the reasoning, never should’ve placed him under arrest in the first place

The police, though, are not authorized to be selective with respect to the laws that they enforce: Officers of the law are obligated to enforce the laws—whether they personally believe that the laws are just or unjust, good or bad.

New information has surfaced since my last article on this subject that sharpens that much more the contrast between the critics’ state of knowledge regarding this whole situation with that of the grand jury.

For months, twenty-three strangers, black, white, and Hispanic, poured over 60 items of evidence. These included four videos—i.e. significantly more footage than that on which the pontificators in the media and elsewhere have been feeding; medical records; autopsy photographs; photos from the scene of the alleged crime; and information on NYPD policies, procedures, and officer training.

Also among the evidence was testimony on the part of 50 witnesses. No fewer than 22 of these witnesses were civilians. The remainder consists of police officers, EMTs, and doctors.

The grand jury also received instruction in the “relevant principles of law” concerning an officer’s right to use force.

Officer Pantaleo explained that he did not apply a “chokehold” to Garner. Rather, he applied a move that he learned in the police academy, a move designed to “tip the person [being arrested or restrained] so that they lose their balance and go to the ground.” Though he heard Garner say that he couldn’t breathe, Pantaleo testified that given the former’s ability to speak, he didn’t think that that was actually the case. Nevertheless, he immediately released him and called the EMTs.

Pantaleo also added that he was fully aware that he was being videoed—but he didn’t mind. And he didn’t mind because he “knew” that he wasn’t “committing” any “misconduct.”

The grand jurors were in a position to evaluate Pantaleo’s account. They found that it was truthful.

The critics don’t like the outcome. But they have no argument. And how could they? To claim that the activity for which Garner was initially confronted by police never should have been a crime is wholly irrelevant to whether Officer Pantaleo acted lawfully or not in using force to bring Garner down, and even less relevant to the question of whether Pantaleo murdered Garner.

To argue—not emote, but argue—that the grand jury made the wrong decision, the aggrieved must challenge both the evidence that the jurors’ drew upon for their conclusion, as well as the reasoning that lead them from the one to the other.

As of yet, no one, as far as I’m aware, has attempted either course.