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State lawmakers urge Cuomo to appoint special prosecutor in Garner’s death

Khorri Atkinson | 8/28/2014, 10:54 a.m.
Thirty-two days after Eric Garner died by an apparent and prohibited chokehold from NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, 14 New York ...
One protester draws attention to the death of Eric Garner after police altercation.

Thirty-two days after Eric Garner died by an apparent and prohibited chokehold from NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, 14 New York state lawmakers have expressed their frustrations in a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo over what they called a “gross and deliberate failure” and “lack of progress” by Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donavan to pursue a case in Garner’s death.

In a three-page letter, dated Aug. 20 and sent by Brooklyn Assemblyman Nick Perry, the lawmakers are calling on Cuomo “to invoke the powers granted to you under the New York State Executive Law” to appoint a special prosecutor to probe Garner’s July 17 death. The letter was signed by Democratic members of the Senate and Assembly.

“There is still a stunning and bewildering lack of timely and appropriate action from the Staten Island district attorney’s office and the NYPD,” the letter reads. “The apparent reluctance to act, displayed by the district attorney’s office is a major source of our alarm over the failure to address the deep public anger and steeply eroding trust in our justice system.”

They argued that the officers who were involved “should not remain uncharged for this long in the face of such clear evidence of a crime,” after using a practice that is prohibited by Section 203-11 of the NYPD Patrol Guide.

The letter continued, “Someone is falling extremely short of executing the responsibilities of the job he was elected to do, and we are tired of waiting, while nothing appears to be happening ... District Attorney Donovan should see probable cause staring back at him each time he views the video. So how does he explain his failure to act?”

The lawmakers’ charge to Cuomo comes a day after Donovan announced that he will open a grand jury investigation into Garner’s death in September, without giving a specific start date or saying when the investigation might be completed. The lawmakers and civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton believe Donovan will not convene a fair trial.

“We still maintain that we have asked the federal government to intervene in this case,” said Sharpton in a statement. “This announcement does not impact our move for federal takeover of this case at all.”

Sharpton led a march last Saturday on Staten Island, calling on Donovan to file criminal charges or let federal prosecutors take over the case.

In the letter, the lawmakers drew a parallel between Garner’s case and the racially charged Howard Beach incident in 1986, when Michael Stewart was killed and another man beaten. They highlighted that former Gov. Mario Cuomo appointed a special prosecutor to “fairly prosecute that case” amid public distrust and lost confidence in the Queens district attorney’s ability to convene a fair trial.

Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, who slammed the New York City medical examiner’s office for ruling Garner’s death a homicide earlier this month, said he is confident that the grand jury would deliberate “based on facts, and not emotion or political considerations.”

Before Donovan’s announcement last week Tuesday, six New York congressional lawmakers wrote to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to have the Justice Department launch a federal investigation. They said there has been no indication that the local district attorney was “prepared to aggressively prosecute the case.”

The medical examiner’s report has family members and supporters demanding criminal prosecution and has inflamed racial tensions between New York’s minority community and the NYPD. Since the death of the 43-year-old father of six, no one has been charged or arrested in connection with his death.

July 17, Garner was stopped by police for allegedly selling loose and untaxed cigarettes on Staten Island. A cellphone video of the incident, recorded by passerby Ramsey Orta, went viral and appears to show an officer placing Garner in a chokehold and then taking him to the ground after Garner refuses to be handcuffed.

Pantaleo and another unidentified officer were placed on modified reassignment pending the outcome of the case. Four emergency medical service workers, who refused to give Garner medical attention at the scene, were suspended without pay pending an investigation.