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Justice Department Will Conduct Separate Inquiry Into Garner's Death

AUDIE CORNISH: Here in Washington Attorney General Eric Holder has formally announced a federal investigation into Eric Garner's death. NPR's Carrie Johnson is at the Justice Department to tell us more. And Carrie, tell us specifically what the Department of Justice would be looking at.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Sure. Eric Holder says the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of New York - who happens to be Loretta Lynch, the attorney general nominated placeholder - have been operating in the background. FBI agents have been reviewing materials and civil rights lawyers both in New York and Washington have been reviewing the record. They're looking to see if they can build a federal civil rights case against the officer involved in the Eric Garner death. And that would involve proving that officer had the specific intent to violate Eric Garner's civil rights.

That's a really high bar, Audie - a much higher bar than the Staten Island grand jury just took a pass on today. They could have indicted, for instance, on manslaughter charges or recklessness or negligent actions resulting in death. The Justice Department is going to have to prove things about what were in that officer's mind and make a nexus to civil rights.

CORNISH: And we have a little bit of tape of Eric Holder. I want to play it here to give a sense of kind of the tone of his conversation today.


ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: All lives must be valued - all lives. Mr. Garner's death is one of several recent incidents across our great country that have tested the sense of trust that must exist between law enforcement and the communities they are charged to serve and to protect.

CORNISH: And Carrie, the Justice Department has launched similar investigations in the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, as you mentioned, but what's the status of those probes?

JOHNSON: So they're in an ongoing investigation into the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman who was not a police officer. And there's also another ongoing investigation, as you mentioned, Audie, in Ferguson. Those investigations are reaching conclusions, but we do not have a sense of when those determinations will be announced.

Eric Holder, though, talked specifically tonight, Audie, about the tragedy of Eric Garner. He said he had seen those cell phone videos, and he said we've got to seek to heal the breakdown in trust between police and the communities they serve. Holder noted his own brother is a retired port authority police officer, so he can see both sides of the situation. But he said that - he promised, in fact, that this investigation - this federal one would be speedy, thorough and independent.

CORNISH: And briefly, Carrie, I understand Holder is going to Ohio tomorrow to talk more about this law enforcement.

JOHNSON: Yeah. He was in Atlanta earlier this week talking at Martin Luther King Jr.'s church. He's headed to Cleveland tomorrow for meetings there. Audie - worth noting that Cleveland is still mourning the death of a 12-year-old who was unarmed with a toy pistol when he was shot and killed by police there recently.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thank you.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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