A police officer who choked an unarmed man to death on a public sidewalk will not face trial. This is the second recent high-profile case in which a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer who had killed an unarmed black civilian — first Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and now Eric Garner on Staten Island, New York.
Those decisions underscore a fundamental truth about police force in America: that the laws are deeply stacked against the possibility that police officers will be charged, let alone convicted, of killing civilians, particularly African-Americans.
In Garner’s case, the medical examiner ruled his death at the hands of the New York City Police Department a homicide. Garner had repeatedly pleaded that he couldn’t breathe while an officer held him in a chokehold, which is itself barred by NYPD rules. The homicide occurred in broad daylight and was filmed from close range.
You’d have to be blind or prejudiced to say there’s no probable cause,” Garner’s mother said before the grand jury’s decision came out.
Grand juries are meant to determine only whether there is “probable cause” to indict a criminal suspect — a standard far lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard that comes into play when deciding guilt at trial. Federal prosecutors secured indictments in more than 99.9 percentof the 162,000 cases they brought before grand juries in 2010. But in Missouri and New York, two grand juries decided that even that low hurdle had not been surmounted.
“First Ferguson, now Staten Island,” said Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “How can anyone in the community have faith in the system now?”
And how, one might wonder, has the United States managed to imprison more than two million people if grand juries can’t find probable cause for murder or even manslaughter in two such straightforward cases, where the identities of those who killed and the means of death were clear?