CNN  — 

The Justice Department is not bringing federal charges against a New York Police Department officer accused of fatally choking Eric Garner, the New York man whose last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Federal authorities had a deadline of Wednesday – five years since Garner’s death – to decide whether to bring charges against NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo. The officer appeared, in a cell phone video, to have Garner in a chokehold shortly before he died. Pantaleo denies that he used a chokehold.

The city medical examiner’s office ruled the death a homicide in the days after his death, and the medical examiner testified that Pantaleo’s alleged chokehold caused an asthma attack and was “part of the lethal cascade of events.”

Still, US Attorney Richard P. Donoghue said there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Pantaleo acted “willfully” in violation of the federal criminal civil rights act.

“There is nothing in the video to suggest that Officer Pantaleo intended or attempted to place Mr. Garner in a chokehold,” Donoghue said.

Attorney General William Barr made the decision not to bring charges against Pantaleo, siding with a Justice Department team from New York over the Civil Rights Division in Washington, due to concerns that prosecutors could not successfully prove the officer acted willfully, a senior Justice Department official said.

“While willfulness may be inferred from blatantly wrongful conduct, such as a gratuitous kick to the head, an officer’s mistake, fear, misperception, or even poor judgment does not constitute willful conduct under federal criminal civil rights law,” Donoghue said.

A still from a cell phone video of Eric Garner's death.

Members of Garner’s family, the Rev. Al Sharpton and several others met with federal prosecutors on Tuesday to learn of the decision.

“They came in that room and they gave condolences,” said Emerald Garner, his daughter. “I don’t want no condolences. I want my father and my sister.”

Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, said the Department of Justice had failed them.

“Five years ago, my son said ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times, and today we can’t breathe, because they let us down,” she said.

Garner’s death, three weeks before the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, started the resurgence of police accountability and brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront, Sharpton said.

“Five years ago, Eric Garner was choked to death. Today, the federal government choked Lady Justice,” Sharpton said.

emerald garner presser 07162019
Garner's daughter's emotional response to Justice Department decision
01:58 - Source: HLN

The decision means that Pantaleo will not face any criminal charges related to Garner’s death, though he does still face departmental charges. Federal investigators have been examining the circumstances of Garner’s death since 2014, after a grand jury in New York declined to indict the Staten Island officer. The city of New York settled with Garner’s estate for $5.9 million in 2015.

Rallying cry sparks a movement

The “I can’t breathe” phrase reflected the suffocating frustration with what activists said was a lack of police accountability after police killings of unarmed African Americans. The phrase was widely heard and seen at protests, and NBA stars like LeBron James bore the message on T-shirts in support of the cause.

LeBron James wears an "I Can't Breathe" shirt during warmups before his game against the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center on December 8, 2014, in New York.

Meanwhile, the NYPD has brought departmental charges against Pantaleo. If found guilty of using the chokehold and restricting Garner’s breathing, he could face discipline ranging from loss of vacation days to the loss of his job.

His disciplinary trial ended last month, and NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill will make a decision after he receives a report and recommendation from the Deputy Commissioner of Trials, according to Deputy Commissioner Phillip Walzak.

And while Pantaleo’s career hangs in the balance, a mother’s grief remains, with each emotional scab reopened at every departmental hearing, anniversary and rally.

“Some days are my good days. Some days are my dark days,” Carr said Monday, a day before the Justice Department’s decision was announced. “Some days I can hardly move around because I’m in deep thought.”