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Eric Garner case could hurt prosecutor's bid for Congress

Daniel Donovan, who didn't get an indictment in the Eric Garner case, is running for Congress. And he's trying to keep the grand jury proceedings secret.
Republican New York State Attorney General candidate Dan Donovan speaks at an event on Nov. 2, 2010 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Stephen Chernin/AP)
Republican New York State Attorney General candidate Dan Donovan speaks at an event on Nov. 2, 2010 in New York, N.Y.

Last month, Daniel Donovan, the district attorney for Staten Island, New York, announced that a grand jury had not charged the New York City police officer whose apparent chokehold killed Eric Garner — despite a graphic video of the encounter showing the unarmed man's last gasping breaths.

For many prosecutors, that result might not seem like much of an achievement. But it hasn’t held Donovan back.

Last week, he announced he’d run as a Republican for the U.S. congressional seat left open when Michael Grimm stepped down after pleading guilty to felony tax fraud. On Monday, Donovan’s only major rival for the party’s nomination, Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, bowed out, clearing the field for the district attorney. The general election hasn’t yet been scheduled but is expected to take place this spring.

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Donovan is popular on heavily Republican Staten Island, a borough of New York City that’s its own county. He’s been elected to his current post three times, the last time with 70% of the vote. Even New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been accused by some police of siding with protesters angry about the Garner case, has said Donovan would “certainly be an improvement” over Grimm.

But the campaign could put a harsh spotlight on Donovan’s performance in the Garner case; protesters and supporters of the Garner family have wondered whether he did all he could to obtain an indictment of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo.

It's not known what charges, if any, Donovan asked the grand jury to return. Asked last month whether Donovan had explicitly asked jurors to indict Pantaleo, a spokesman, Douglas Auer, declined to comment.

Donovan also has fought efforts to make the details of the Garner grand jury investigation public. Several organizations, as well as New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, filed motions last month to release the materials, including a transcript of the proceedings. In response, Donovan’s office has filed its own motions asking for the information to be kept secret. A court hearing is scheduled for later this month.

The doubts over Donovan's performance in the Garner case echo the intense criticism of St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch for his handling of the investigation into the police shooting of Michael Brown, another unarmed black man. Rather than naming specific charges and pressing for an indictment of Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot Brown, McCulloch laid out all the evidence and asked grand jurors to make up their own minds, angering many in the area's black community.

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Donovan appears aware that the Garner case could hurt him in the campaign. Asked in a radio interview Sunday whether he expects criticism over his handling of the case, Donovan said using the issue as a political weapon would be disrespectful to the Garner family. “I would hope that they would respect the fact that there was a man who died, and a mother who lost her son, and there’s a wife who lost her husband, and some children who lost their dad,” Donovan said.

That argument may be difficult to sustain. Jonathan Moore, a lawyer for the Garner family, said that’s not at all how his clients see things. “It’s not an insult to the Garner family to bring up questions about how that grand jury performed under his watch,” said Moore. “The family is of the opinion that the conduct of the office under his watch is fair game for people to talk about.”

Moore said he thinks Donovan is trying to shut down any effort to discuss the issue on the campaign trail. “I think he’s aware of his exposure there, in terms of being critiqued for the role of his office in not getting an indictment,” Moore said.

Through a campaign spokeswoman, Donovan declined to address the issue further.

Even some national Republicans have reportedly expressed fears that Donovan’s run could reopen the racially charged Garner controversy, reinforcing a perception among some voters that the party is hostile or indifferent to minorities.

Garner, a father of six, was selling loose cigarettes on a Staten Island street in July when several NYPD officers tried to arrest him. Garner died after Pantaleo placed him in an apparent chokehold — a technique banned by the NYPD for more than two decades. Garner repeatedly shouted “I can’t breathe,” as he lay on the ground. The news that Pantaleo would not be charged came just nine days after a St. Louis County grand jury chose not to indict Wilson. The decisions sparked weeks of nationwide protests against law enforcement’s treatment of young minorities.