Call the question in Staten Island
Kyle Palmer | Monday, December 8, 2014
As with any controversial ruling or decision, I saw a lot of Facebook comments this last week ranging from uninformed to misinformed and from judgmental to apathetic regarding the decision not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the case of Eric Garner’s death in Staten Island, New York. It was astonishing to me how people equated the case to the Ferguson, Missouri, case in which a grand jury chose not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown the week prior. The two cases are very different, but frustration and contention with both is understandable.
The Ferguson case included conflicting witness accounts and involved one police officer who claims his actions were in response to resistance or assault. The case likely would not have met the burden of proof required in a criminal case (although that is not what an indictment is, but more on that later). The Staten Island incident, on the other hand, was videotaped and involved multiple officers arresting one man based on his selling cigarettes without tax stamps. The man was not causing harm to the officers, his death was caused by one of the police officers employing tactics that were banned in the New York Police Department and there very well could have been a conviction of the officer on the charges of excessive use of force or wrongful death.
Before getting too deep into the issue, let me start with a basic lesson: an indictment is not a criminal verdict. Given what I have seen and heard, many people either forget that or simply do not know that in the first place. A criminal verdict determines whether a person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or not guilty if there is reasonable doubt. An indictment means that there is probable cause for a trial and does not leave any formal indication of guilt or lack thereof. An indictment simply calls the question.
In Ferguson, an unarmed man was left dead and the details leading up to his death were not at all definite. The dispute of circumstances and the fact that a death occurred perhaps should have resulted in an indictment of the police officer, leading to a trial. If the case had gone to trial, it is my belief the jury would not have ended up rendering a guilty verdict for the officer who killed the man based on the fact there was reasonable doubt stemming from the conflicting witness accounts. By no means am I saying the police officer was guilty or innocent here, I am just stating that the burden of proof likely would not have been met in a trial.
In Staten Island, a man was left dead and the details leading up to his death were fairly clear. A man was selling cigarettes and multiple police officers wanted to arrest him for breaking a rule. He showed no physical resistance until a police officer came up behind him and put him into a chokehold, a practice explicitly banned in the NYPD. According to the coroner’s report, the man died as a result of the chokehold. I strongly believe that this case should have at least gone to trial, and I think there is a good chance the officer would have been found guilty. I think the question was worth calling. It is worth finding out exactly what the circumstances were to determine if the police officer was guilty of excessive force and causing the wrongful death of an unarmed man.
The evidence against the police officer was simply more substantial in the Staten Island case than in the Ferguson case, which is one reason many prominent political figures have called the grand jury’s decision not to indict into question. Former President George W. Bush said, “How sad. You know, the verdict was hard to understand.” Speaker of the House John Boehner stated, “The American people deserve more answers about what really happened here, and was our system of justice handled properly?” President Barack Obama said, “Too many Americans feel deep unfairness” in the criminal justice system. Both Senator Rand Paul and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have called for reform in our criminal justice system.
I do not think the Staten Island case is only a race issue. I do not think it is a necessarily partisan issue. I think the death of Eric Garner is above all a justice issue. Our justice system should be based on the principle of investigating as thoroughly as possible to find the truth and deal with those guilty of injustice appropriately. A man should not die for the simple, though illegal, act of selling cigarettes. If a police officer ever uses excessive force, he should be severely reprimanded. We should hold law enforcement to a higher standard, not let them get away with more. If there is ever a reasonable possibility of guilt, we should call the question.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.