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Civil rights prosecutors urge charges in Eric Garner’s death

WASHINGTON — Federal civil rights prosecutors have recommended charging a New York police officer in the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner, but it’s unclear if top Justice Department officials will be willing to move forward with a case, a person familiar with the matter said Friday.

Prosecutors recently made the recommendation to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, according to the person, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the pending case and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

The New York Times first reported the development, which marks the latest legal turn in a case that became in a flashpoint in a national conversation about police use of force. Video shot by a bystander shows 43-year-old Garner, after being stopped by officers for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, telling the officers to leave him alone and refusing to be handcuffed. Officer Daniel Pantaleo responds by putting Garner in an apparent chokehold, and Garner, who had asthma, is heard gasping, “I can’t breathe.”

The case has been in legal limbo for years.

Civil rights prosecutors under former Deputy Attorney General Loretta Lynch felt confident forging ahead with charges against Pantaleo but faced resistance from federal prosecutors in Brooklyn, who were not sure there was enough evidence to bring a case they could win. A state grand jury refused to indict Pantaleo in 2014.

Civil rights activists and other observers have been closely watching how Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a vocal supporter of local law enforcement, will handle the racially charged case. Because of its high-profile nature, Rosenstein must recommend whether to allow prosecutors to move forward with an indictment, the person familiar with the case said. Sessions can also weigh in but has given no indication publicly about where he stands.

The Justice Department did not immediately comment.

Sessions has long said that he won’t pursue the kinds of wide-ranging federal investigations of entire police departments that were hallmarks of the Obama administration’s approach to reforming troubled local agencies. He maintains the approach diminishes officer morale and can lead to spikes in crime.

But he has also said he will hold individual officers accountable for breaking the law.

Bringing civil rights charges against police officers is rare and challenging in any administration because prosecutors must reach a difficult standard of proof. It requires them to establish that an officer not only acted with excessive force but also willfully violated someone’s constitutional rights.

Jonathan Moore, an attorney for the Garner family, said he had not been informed that charges were recommended but was cautiously optimistic.

“We welcome this if it’s true, obviously, but it’s long overdue,” he said.

But Pantaleo’s attorney, Stuart London, said he has not been contacted by Justice Department officials in the last few months. He reiterated that his client maintains he did not violate Garner’s rights.

“It has always and continues to be a simple street encounter,” London said.