On Wednesday, a Staten Island grand jury decided not to return an indictment for the police officer who put Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, in a chokehold shortly before his death. A different Staten Island grand jury was less sympathetic to Ramsey Orta, however, the man who filmed the entire incident.
In August, less than a month after filming the fatal July 17 encounter in which Daniel Pantaleo and other NYPD police officers confronted Garner for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes, a grand jury indicted Orta on weapons charges stemming from anarrest by undercover officers earlier that month.
Police alleged that Orta had slipped a .25 caliber handgun into a teenage accomplice’s waistband outside a New York hotel. Orta testified that the charges were falsely mounted by police in retaliation for his role in documenting Garner’s death, but the grand jury rejected his contention, charging him with single felony counts of third-degree criminal weapon possession and criminal firearm possession.
In Garner’s case, on the other hand, jurors determined there was not probable cause that Pantaleo had committed any crime. A medical examiner ruled Garner’s death homicide in part resulting from the chokehold, a restraining move banned by the NYPD in 1993.
The use of grand juries in high-profile police killings has attracted increasing scrutiny after such juries declined to indict both Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri this summer, and now Pantaleo. While the famous saying goes that a grand jury could “indict a ham sandwich,” it’s become clear that they also give much more leeway to police officers.
St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s objectivity was regularly called into question throughout the Brown case. Critics argue that the close cooperation between law enforcement and prosecutors may make them more hesitant to bring charges against police officers.
In addition, in the Brown case, Wilson was allowed to offer hours of testimony in his own defense. For this and other reasons, critics accused prosecutors of abusing the grand jury process to achieve an outcome that would be favorable to law enforcement. It’s not yet clear what role, if any, Pantaleo played in the grand jury proceedings.