NEW YORK — Amid weeks of protests and calls for federal intervention, the Staten Island district attorney announced Tuesday that he would open a grand jury investigation into the death of an unarmed black man during an arrest last month, a process that could lead to indictments of the police officers involved.
The death of Eric Garner, 43, inflamed tensions between the New York Police Department and minority communities, as widely distributed cell phone videos of the confrontation showed Mr. Garner struggling for breath as an officer clung to his neck and back.
Over the past week, civil rights advocates drew a link between those images and the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo., with some, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, shuttling between the two disparate scenes — a largely peaceful Staten Island and the smoke-filled streets of a community near St. Louis — to press for the prosecution of officers in both episodes.
In New York, demands for criminal prosecutions grew louder after the city medical examiner ruled Mr. Garner’s death a homicide caused by a chokehold as well as the compression of his chest during the arrest. The district attorney, Daniel M. Donovan Jr., cited the autopsy, as well as an investigation by his office, in his decision to impanel a grand jury beginning in September.
“I will go wherever the evidence takes me, without fear or favor,” Mr. Donovan said in his statement, declining to comment on details of the grand jury inquiry or when it might be completed.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has struggled to maintain a balance between assuaging community outrage at Mr. Garner’s death and supporting rank-and-file officers doubtful of his backing, said in a terse statement that he was “pleased” with the decision, adding, “The legal process is now underway.”
Before Mr. Donovan’s announcement, many advocates urged federal prosecutors to take over the case, questioning whether a district attorney from Staten Island, the smallest of the city’s five boroughs and home to many police officers, would zealously pursue what could prove to be a difficult case against the officers.
Six members of Congress asked Attorney General Eric Holder to open a federal investigation into the case, saying they saw no indication that the local district attorney was “prepared to aggressively prosecute the case.” Mr. Sharpton, who has also urged federal involvement and is planning a demonstration on Staten Island for Saturday, said Mr. Donovan’s announcement did not dampen his calls for a federal civil rights case.
Mr. Holder, who is set to travel today to Missouri, has said the Justice Department is monitoring the Staten Island investigation. But federal authorities have thus far remained on the sidelines of Mr. Garner’s case, in part, former prosecutors said, because a state case can be made more complicated if federal prosecutors go first. The standard for proving a federal case can also be tough, requiring prosecutors to present evidence that the officers intended to deprive Mr. Garner of his civil rights based on his race.
Legal experts and former prosecutors said that despite the medical examiner’s ruling that the death was a homicide, murder charges seemed unlikely because the episode that ended with Mr. Garner’s death July 17 began as a routine arrest. Officers are generally given wide latitude to use force within department guidelines and their professional judgment. A lesser homicide charge, such as second-degree manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, could be possible, legal experts said.
But before that, the grand jury must weigh whether there is enough evidence to go forward with a criminal prosecution, and if so, against which of the officers present. Mr. Donovan said in a statement that he would not comment on any details of the grand jury’s investigation, including the nature of the charges, witnesses and potential targets.United States - North America - New York City - New York - Eric Holder - Missouri - Al Sharpton - Staten Island - Bill de Blasio