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Mother of Eric Garner Praises New York’s Appointment of Special Prosecutor to Probe Police Killings

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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced plans to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate police killings of unarmed civilians, making New York the first state to do so. Cuomo’s move came a day after mothers of New Yorkers killed by police rallied outside his New York City office demanding he fulfill his promise to appoint the special prosecutor if state lawmakers did not take action. We speak to Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, who died almost exactly one year ago, on July 17, after police pulled him to the ground in a chokehold and piled on top of him while he said “I can’t breathe” at least 11 times. A grand jury declined to indict the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, who put Garner in the chokehold. The prosecutor in the case, Daniel Donovan, was recently elected to Congress.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to a major development here in New York in the push for police accountability. Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced plans to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate police killings of unarmed civilians. On Wednesday, Cuomo appointed New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman under a one-year executive order.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO: An executive order that appoints the attorney general as a special prosecutor for any case where a conflict may be perceived, so the attorney general will be a standing prosecutor to handle any case where a law enforcement officer kills an unarmed civilian, or kills a civilian and there is a question as to whether or not the civilian is armed and dangerous.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Governor Cuomo’s action will make New York the first state to institute an independent prosecutor for police killings, a step recommended by President’s Obama’s task force on policing. But it falls short of the demands of some activist groups. The Justice Committee had called for the executive order to cover all police killings and not be limited to just one year. Cuomo’s move came a day after mothers of New Yorkers killed by police rallied outside his New York City office demanding he fulfill his promise to appoint a special prosecutor if state lawmakers did not take action.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by one of those mothers. Gwen Carr is with us. She’s the mother of Eric Garner, who died almost exactly a year ago. It was July 17, 2014, after police pulled him to the ground in a chokehold and piled on top of him while he said “I can’t breathe” 11 times. A grand jury declined to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who put Garner in the chokehold. The prosecutor in the case, Daniel Donovan, was recently elected to Congress from Staten Island. Garner’s death was caught on video by Ramsey Orta, who has been arrested repeatedly since Eric Garner’s death. Ramsey Orta alleges police harassment. Mrs. Carr was there Wednesday when Governor Cuomo signed his executive order appointing a special prosecutor to investigate police killings of unarmed civilians. She’s a member of the Justice Committee, which pushed for the measure.

We’re also joined by Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Gwen Carr, you were there when Governor Cuomo made this announcement. Are you satisfied now?

GWEN CARR: Well, pretty much, I am, because Governor Cuomo signing the executive order will end inherent, fundamental, you know, areas that exist with the local DAs now, that when a person, a civilian, is killed by police, there seems to be a problem. So now we’ll have an independent person to review these killings, which we hope that there will be no more of.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the issue of it being just for one year? Obviously, the governor had some limitations in that the state Legislature would not pass any kind of legislation. But are you worried that that’s such a short time, that even investigating one case sometimes could take longer, longer than a year?

GWEN CARR: Well, the language in the executive order doesn’t read like that anymore. It’s not only—there’s no language in there that says only for one year. It would have to be renewed after a year, which we discussed with the governor. And the scope was broadened for the Attorney General’s Office to investigate and prosecute more cases. That was brought in, you know, once we discussed it with the governor.

AMY GOODMAN: You met with Governor Cuomo and spoke to him. What did you tell him?

GWEN CARR: Well, the families told him that we wanted him to commit to signing an executive order for a special prosecutor, and he promised the families when we met in April in Albany that if his independent monitor that he was presenting wasn’t passed, that he would sign an executive order. And at that time, we tried to make it perfectly clear that we did want it for all cases, and we didn’t want a one-year limitation. OK. So now, after his independent monitor wasn’t passed, we went back to him, and we asked him to sign the executive order, which, you know, he had everything prepared. It was read to us. And we had some concerns, which we’ve addressed—he addressed. And we asked him to change certain things. And he did. When we went back, it was close to what we had asked for.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Michael [sic] Warren, why is it—has it historically been so difficult for local prosecutors to move on these cases of police killings?

VINCENT WARREN: It’s been very—it’s very difficult for a range of reasons. One of the most important things is that there is an inherent conflict of interest between prosecutors and police officers. They work together all the time. They investigate cases together. They prosecute cases together. The police collect evidence. And then, all of a sudden, if you have a scenario where a police officer is accused of killing a civilian, those same prosecutors that work with them day in and day out now are charged with trying to investigate those cases. And on the local level, politically, personally, that doesn’t always work. So we end up with this crazy scenario where if a civilian kills a police officer, you know that that civilian is going to be prosecuted, but if a police officer kills an unarmed civilian, most of us don’t have the confidence that that’s going to be a fair investigation and prosecution. This is a great step in the right direction, because it inserts the attorney general—and we have a great attorney general, Eric Schneiderman—into that mix, so that it takes it out of the hands of the prosecutor to decide whether it’s going to be a political play or whether they’re actually going to go with the law.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And my apologies. It’s Vince Warren, not Michael.

VINCENT WARREN: That’s right. I’ve been called worse than “Michael Warren,” though. Believe me.

AMY GOODMAN: Gwen Carr, what was your relationship with the prosecutor in Staten Island, the prosecutor who ended up becoming a congressmember, who failed to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who put your son in a chokehold?

GWEN CARR: What was my relationship to him?

AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever speak to him?

GWEN CARR: We spoke to him once, while—before he formed the grand jury, before anything happened. And just speaking with him, it didn’t sound too positive to us. And even before the grand jury was formed, we were trying to get the federal government to take the case, because we felt more confident in the federal government than we felt in the DA taking on the case.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And your reaction to this constant arrest of Ramsey Orta by the police now, time after time, since the death of your son?

GWEN CARR: Yes. Now, he has gotten in conflict with the police. You know, I’m not aware of the circumstances exactly. But one thing has nothing to do with the other. He did take the video. He took a stand, which other people didn’t. And for that, he is my hero. He’s the one that conveyed what happened in my son’s case. And the DA still failed to indict. And that’s what I don’t understand. They had a clear video showing exactly what happened. And the other thing they had was two medical examiners’ report. One of the medical examiners was a police forensic expert. And they both ruled my son’s death a homicide. So, I always understood an indictment was probable cause. Was that not probable cause?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Vince, I wanted to ask you about this latest report today that—from the monitor now, following—of New York City police, following the stop-and-frisk settlement, that a lot of police are not now documenting their stop-and-frisks, so there may be actually an undercount of what is actually going on.

VINCENT WARREN: Yes. And the Center for Constitutional Rights, as you know, has a stop-and-frisk case that’s been going on for a number of years, and we’re in the reform process of that case now. The federal monitor came out with a report, and one of the indications in the report, based upon how—what the evidence looks like, is that the police are still not doing as good a job as they could in terms of collecting all of the information so that we will be able to keep the police officers accountable. So we’re in a situation now where even when you think about this new executive order and you think about the work that’s happening in this litigation, where now there are a number of places in which we can concretely say that there is outside oversight and outside enforcement to hold the police officers accountable so that we don’t have killings of other children, like Mrs. Carr’s son, and so that African Americans and Latinos and everyone can walk around the streets without fear of being aggressively policed illegally by the police department.

AMY GOODMAN: As we show the video of your son one more time, Eric Garner being taken down last year, the video that Ramsey Orta took, and now has been arrested repeatedly—his wife was arrested, his mother was arrested, as well.

GWEN CARR: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the outcome would have been different if what Governor has put—Governor Cuomo has put in place now was in place then?

GWEN CARR: I think the outcome would have been definitely—do you mean with what happened with my son?

AMY GOODMAN: Right, whether the officer or officers would have been indicted?

GWEN CARR: Yes. Well, they still weren’t indicted, you understand, because—now, in many of our cases, many of the families’ cases, there were plenty of evidence to show that there should have been an indictment, and even a conviction, with these police officers, but there wasn’t. That’s why we said there is a definite problem with the local DAs. And no matter what they say, the records prove. Some DAs will say, “Oh, I had a hundred indictments.” How many convictions did they have? None. So, there’s a problem there. Everybody is not always right, on either side. And everybody is not always wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Vince Warren, is there any possibility in the case of Eric Garner, at any level, federal or state, now, of there being some kind of indictment?

VINCENT WARREN: Well, the important thing to remember about this executive order is that it is forward-looking from the date that it’s signed. So, unfortunately, situations like Eric Garner’s case would not be included here, and it would be a forward-looking question, which is why the one year, we need to be focused on enforcing and what happens in getting the Congress—excuse me, the Legislature to come up with legislation that mirrors this.

But, you know, the Eric Garner case, there are a range of things that actually are happening. So there is a civil lawsuit that is happening. And although it is not a perfect remedy, and it will not result necessarily in police officers going to jail, it does bring out all of the evidence that will not have come out publicly, because of a lack of trial, into the public arena, and it is a measure of holding the police department accountable. I still hold out hope and expectations that federal and state law enforcement, as information comes out, will act on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Gwen Carr, our condolences again on this first anniversary of your son’s death. Eric Garner was killed July 17, 2014, when put in a police chokehold and taken to the ground and piled on by a number of police officers, saying “I can’t breathe” 11 times. And thanks, Vince Warren, for joining us. Vince Warren is the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll talk about the latest developments in Greece and in Puerto Rico and what is the relationship of Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York to what’s happening in Puerto Rico today. Stay with us.

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