Criminal Justice

Questions remain after manslaughter charges in New York subway killing

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Marine veteran Daniel Penny, 24, is escorted in handcuffs by the New York Police Department after turning himself in May 12 in New York City. Penny has been charged with second-degree manslaughter in the chokehold death of Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old Black man. Photo by Michael Nigro/Sipa USA via the Associated Press.

There are still plenty of questions surrounding the killing of a homeless man on a New York City subway May 1. The Manhattan district attorney’s office in New York has filed second-degree manslaughter charges against 24-year-old Marine veteran Daniel Penny, but the debate continues over the delayed response by police and prosecutors.

Penny is accused of putting Jordan Neely, a 30-year-old Black man, in a deadly chokehold after Neely, a street performer, began acting erratically on the train. It took prosecutors several days to file charges, and those who criticize Neely’s death as an act of vigilantism question why Penny was able to walk free after he was brought in for questioning.

“Public violence [through criminal law enforcement] and private violence [through vigilantes] should not be used to regulate access to public space and behaviors in public space—especially for people who have no place else to go,” Jamelia Morgan, a professor and the director of the Center for Racial and Disability Justice at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, told the ABA Journal. “In the richest country in human history, such public and private policing is a moral failure and national tragedy. Jordan Neely deserved more from a country that failed him in so many ways.”

Attorneys for Penny maintain that Neely, who has a history of mental illness, was acting in a hostile and threatening manner on the subway train before Penny used deadly force in an act of self-defense.

According to the New York Times, the charging delay would have given prosecutors extra time to interview witnesses and strengthen their case because Penny claimed self-defense. And public scrutiny and protests over the killing could have played a role in the ultimate charging decision.

Morgan, whose center at Northwester University researches how public policy fails low-income people with disabilities and people of color and criminalizes mental illness, argues that there’s no reason why Neely shouldn’t still be alive.

“In an era when unsheltered people lack affordable and accessible housing, the fight over public safety will continue, and violent efforts to exclude marginalized groups from public spaces will continue—unless elected officials take a stand to end citations and arrests for quality-of-life offenses and commit dollars to the social infrastructure necessary to keep all within the community safe,” Morgan says.

Penny was arraigned and released on $100,000 bond. He was ordered to surrender his passport and is due back in court July 17. If convicted, Penny could face up to 15 years in prison.

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