WASHINGTON — As the Justice Department opens a civil rights investigation into the chokehold death of an unarmed man in New York City, the prosecutor in charge of the probe is juggling another high-profile role: designated heir to Eric Holder as the nation’s attorney general.
The dual positions have placed Loretta Lynch in a public spotlight ahead of Senate confirmation hearings, a period of time when cabinet nominees normally seek a lower profile to avoid providing fodder for critics. She’ll inevitably be questioned about the investigation into Eric Garner’s death, an obvious priority for a Justice Department seeking to address concerns about police use of force and racial bias in law enforcement.
“This case is going to gain public notoriety either way. That she’s handling it certainly gives another reason for people to talk about it,” said Joshua Levy, a Washington lawyer and former counsel to Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that will consider Lynch’s nomination.
The work is not new for Lynch, who first gained national attention for prosecuting New York police officers involved in the 1997 broomstick sodomy of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, one of the most sensational police abuse cases in city history. She has twice served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, the office that handles federal prosecutions in Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island and Staten Island, where Garner’s July 17 death occurred.
On Tuesday, Lynch was navigating Senate corridors to meet with Judiciary Committee members about her nomination by President Barack Obama to head the Justice Department. A day later, she was promising that the department’s investigation would be fair, thorough and conducted “as expeditiously as possible.”
It’s not clear how long the investigation will take, but it will be underway during her confirmation hearings expected early next year and could remain open well after she is installed as attorney general, if her nomination is confirmed. A spokeswoman for Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, expected to lead the Judiciary Committee in the new congressional session, said the matter was among the issues expected to be raised.
“They’ll ask her, and if her handlers have prepped her and gotten her ready to talk about this, she’ll say, ‘I can’t talk to you about that. It’s an ongoing investigation,'” said David Weinstein, a former federal civil rights prosecutor in Miami, who said the confirmation hearings will put a spotlight on a prosecutor accustomed to staying out of the public eye.
Lawyers say that while the nation is closely watching the investigation, they don’t expect the attention to have any bearing on Lynch, described by those who knew her as low-key, experienced and diligent, or on how prosecutors evaluate the evidence.
“I really don’t think Loretta Lynch is going to be thinking about how that does or does not dovetail with the confirmation process. That’s not the Loretta Lynch I know,” said Alan Vinegrad, a fellow member of the Louima trial team who also has served as U.S. attorney in that district.
“It’s not going to affect how the civil rights statutes have been written and interpreted over the years by courts. It’s just not. I think all those judgments are going to be made the way they’re always made,” he added.
The federal investigation will look for potential civil rights violations in the death of Garner, which came during a scuffle as officers tried to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. One officer, Daniel Pantaleo, placed his arm around Garner’s neck in what appeared to be a chokehold, though the officer’s lawyer and police union officials say he used an authorized takedown maneuver. A grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo this week, sending thousands of demonstrators into New York streets.
The investigation, along with a separate federal probe into the Ferguson, Missouri, police shooting, is unfolding at a time of national dialogue about race relations and treatment of minorities in the criminal justice system. The Justice Department has sought a role in that conversation, with Holder visiting several cities for roundtable talks on building trust between communities and police.
Lynch, too, has confronted some of those issues as U.S. attorney and would be probably be faced by them again as attorney general. She’s spoken often about law enforcement and relationships between minorities and law enforcement, saying in a 2000 panel discussion that the criminal prosecution of police officers was a valuable tool but limited in its ability to produce systemic change.
“Quite frankly, one of the main problems that you often have in police misconduct cases is the reluctance of witnesses — both victims and law enforcement — to come forward,” she said at the time.
“But the real problem, from my perspective and the Justice Department’s perspective, is that you are coming into an event after it has already occurred — whereas the real goal here is to effect some sort of systemic change that will prevent such incidents from occurring in the first place,” she added.