We the People: Reflections on the grand jury’s decision in the Garner case

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

A grand jury voted on Wednesday not to indict Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner. Mr. Garner, a black man, died while being arrested for selling unlicensed cigarettes on Staten Island. Mr. Pantaleo, a white police officer, pulled Mr. Garner to the ground with an arm across the neck during the arrest.

The fact that there was no indictment does not mean that there was no death or that the death was not a tragedy or that better policies and procedures should not be adopted by the NYPD. It does not mean that the vote of the grand jury was wrong.

The citizens in the grand jury have voted and their work must be respected. The grand jury determines whether the evidence gathered is sufficient for a case to go forward to a criminal trial. In this case, the jurors received a mountain of evidence.

D.A. Donovan stated that investigators conducted “over 38 interviews,” contacted 22 civilian witnesses, interviewed the EMTs, reviewed videotapes and called expert witnesses in forensic pathology and police policy, procedure and training. The grand jurors heard testimony from the police officers involved.

Mr. Donovan said, “I assured the public that I was committed to a fair, thorough and responsible investigation into Mr. Garner’s death, and that I would go wherever the evidence took me, without fear or favor.”

The grand jurors convened to review evidence after the medical examiner ruled the death a homicide caused by a “chokehold” and a compression of the chest. A homicide for the medical examiner is not the same as a homicide for the prosecutor. The grand jury needed sufficient credible evidence of criminal negligence in order to indict for criminally negligent homicide.

That requires proof of a failure “to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk” that a person would die from the action taken and that the failure was “a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.” The grand jury did not find sufficient evidence for the charge.

Mayor de Blasio, stated, “Today’s outcome is one that many in our city did not want  … [y]et New York City owns a proud and powerful tradition of expressing ourselves through nonviolent protest.”

The people should have been reminded that the justice system is not wrong merely because a result reached by a grand jury is unpopular. The actions taken right or wrong will be further reviewed by the Department of Justice and the Internal Affairs Bureau and probably a civil jury. They will apply the appropriate scrutiny and different burdens of proof to the evidence which will likely produce a different result.

Pat Lynch, the president of the PBA, held a press conference and complained that the press and the public have forgotten that police officers are citizens too and deserve the same presumption of innocence and equal treatment under the law given to all citizens.

He reminded the mayor that the police need the support of the community and its leaders in order to do a good job. He challenged the mayor to give a clear direction to the NYPD: if police officers are expected to do less or be less active in enforcing the law then the mayor should give them that mandate.

We should have sympathy for the death of Mr. Garner and empathy for any citizen who feels that the police have a predisposition to give a person accused of a crime less than fair treatment. We must work together to guarantee every citizen an America where all people are treated equally and believe they shall be treated equally under the law. Period.

The Reverend Al Sharpton, said, “I think you can see, we have no confidence in the state grand juries, whether in Ferguson or in New York, because there is an intrinsic relationship between state prosecutors and the police.”

The insinuation that a political conspiracy undermines the integrity of the grand jury system is ludicrous. It is an appeal to negative emotion designed to engender hate.

Our city needs a reminder we all share similar dreams: to love our families and friends and to live in peace. Mayor de Blasio and other leaders should spread that message of light which will lead the way to a better community.

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