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National

Grand Jury Declines To Indict Police Officer In Chokehold Case

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S. Justice Department is launching a full investigation into the death of Eric Garner. Garner's a Staten Island man who died after being placed in a choke hold by a white, New York City police officer while being taken into custody back in July. A cell phone video of the incident, including Garner's subsequent collapse, was widely viewed online. Today a grand jury declined to indict the officer. And in response, protesters have been gathering on the streets of New York. In Washington, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a federal civil rights probe into the case.

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U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Our prosecutors will conduct an independent, thorough, fair, expeditious investigation.

CORNISH: We're going to hear a few different angles on this story, beginning with NPR's Joel Rose in New York. Hey there, Joel.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So remind us the details surrounding Garner's arrest and death.

ROSE: Sure. Eric Garner died in police custody in July. He was arrested for allegedly selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island, where he lived. And in the video that you mentioned, you can see much of that arrest playing out. Garner is trying to persuade the police not to arrest him, and he was a large man - at least 300 pounds. And then one officer in particular, Daniel Pantaleo, uses a chokehold, which is prohibited under NYPD policy, to bring Garner to the ground, and then other officers help hold him down. You can hear Garner in the video saying I can't breathe, I can't breathe several times. He was pronounced dead a few hours later at a hospital.

A New York City medical examiner ruled the death a homicide. That report said the chokehold was a contributing factor, but it also cited preexisting medical conditions, including asthma. Officer Pantaleo has been on desk duty since the incident, but he has not been arrested or charged with a crime.

CORNISH: What else have you been able to learn about the grand jury's decision?

ROSE: In a statement, the district attorney for Staten Island says he can't go into specifics about what the grand jury heard, citing a state law that prohibits him from doing so. But here is what we do know - that there were 23 members of this special grand jury that was hearing just this one case, and that they've been reviewing evidence since late in September until today. And a lawyer for Officer Pantaleo has said that he did testify before the grand jury, as did other officers who were involved in the incident. But we just don't know what those officers said to the jurors. We also don't know exactly what charges the jury might've voted on, whether that included murder or lesser charges or both.

CORNISH: And briefly Joel, what's the response from Office Pantaleo, his attorneys?

ROSE: They are gratified by the decision. We've also heard from the police officer's union, which put out a statement saying it was pleased by the decision. And it also stressed that there, quote, "were no winners here today," unquote.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Joel Rose. Joel, Thank you.

ROSE: You're welcome. Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.