NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Christian Examiner) – A Staten Island, New York, grand jury announcement, Dec. 3, that there would be no indictment of Daniel Pantaleo, a white officer, who caused the death of Eric Garner, a black man--using a chokehold--brought cries of protest in New York and around the country. But Southern Baptists, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also expressed outrage, questioning the legal process and police motives.
The case involved a July 17 arrest prompted by complaints from business owners about Eric Garner (44) selling cigarettes in front of their businesses. He had been arrested for the same offense about a month earlier. The arrest went viral on YouTube after a video captured Garner's resistance, police taking him down, and finally his becoming unresponsive and police moving away.
The recording does not show any racial aspect to the incident other than the obvious differences in skin color between Garner and the police who were part of the takedown. One of the four officers engaged in the initial effort appears to be a person of color, and, the senior officer on the scene, who apparently ordered the takedown, was a black female sergeant.
Despite a lack of evidence that race was a factor, Moore and Mohler took issue with the grand jury's decision.
Mohler tweeted that the matter would decide the character of the country.
Asking rhetorically, "Do any reputable police forces defend the use of a chokehold as was used on Eric Garner?" Mohler finished by declaring "We are deciding the kind of nation we want to be."
Moore was more emphatic, saying he was "stunned speechless" and took aim at the NYPD and the grand jury.
"A government that can choke a man to death on video for selling cigarettes is not a government living up to a biblical definition of justice or any recognizable definition of justice," he wrote on the ERLC website.
But Moore's anger was not aimed at the technique used in the takedown so much as the racial motive he said was at play in Garner's death.
"We may not agree in this country on every particular case and situation, but it's high time we start listening to our African American brothers and sisters in this country when they tell us they are experiencing a problem," he said.
President Obama's former head of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Joshua DuBois, praised Moore's narrative in a tweet. "Can't put into words how important it is that the Convention founded to protect slavery issued a statement like this," he wrote.
Congressman Peter King (R-NY), a leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, whose 2nd District encompasses a portion of Long Island, reacted much differently than the Southern Baptist leaders and Obama's former chief for religious affairs.
"Thanks to [Staten Island] grand jury for doing justice & not yielding to outside pressure," he tweeted Dec. 3 after the jury announcement. "Decision must be respected. Compassion for the Garner family."
He also appeared on CNN in an interview with Wolf Blitzer.
"I feel strongly the police officer should not be indicted. I've been following this case from the start," he said. "You had a 350-pound person who is resisting arrest. The police were trying to bring him down as quickly as possible.
"If he had not had asthma and a heart condition and was so obese then most definitely he would not have died from this," he offered. "The police had no reason to know he was in a serious condition. I know people are saying he said 11 times or seven times, 'I can't breathe.' The fact is if you can't breathe, you can't talk." King likened it to someone yelling "you're breaking my arm" when being placed in handcuffs, saying the police hear such exagerrated claims often.
King also dismissed charges that the color of Garner's skin was a factor.
"People are saying very casually that this done out of racial motives or a violation of his civil rights.
"There's not a hint there that anyone used a racial epithet, and also what's not mentioned is the senior officer on the spot, who's there at the location, was an African-American female sergeant," he said. "So, I don't know where the racial angle comes in.
"I have no doubt that if that was a 350-pound white guy he would have been treated the same.
"And the reason the police were there is Tompkinsville is primarily a minority area," King added. "The local business people were complaining about Garner who was constantly selling cigarettes outside their establishments, and he was creating a problem in their neighborhood. It was at the request of the community – the people in that minority community – who went to police headquarters ... who wanted police to remove him."
New York state law makes all information about the grand jury and its deliberations confidential. Even details about the racial and gender makeup of the jurors are not allowed to be shared. However, Richmond County District Attorney Daniel M. Donovan Jr. provided some details about all dedicated grand juries (convened solely for a single case), like the one which was impaneled for this case:
"In New York, a grand jury has 23 members. A quorum of 16 grand jurors must be present to hear evidence. Sixteen grand jurors who have heard all of the relevant and critical evidence must be present to deliberate. To formally charge a person with a crime, at least 12 grand jurors who have heard all the evidence and the legal instructions must agree that there is legally sufficient evidence and reasonable cause to believe the accused person committed a crime."
Despite the grand jury's decision clearing Pantaleo, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced he was launching a federal probe.
"Now that the local investigation has concluded, I'm here to announce the Justice Department will proceed with a federal civil rights investigation into Mr. Garner's death," Holder said.