Man who placed subway performer in fatal chokehold to be charged

Daniel Penny faces a charge of manslaughter in the death of Jordan Neely, a subway performer experiencing homelessness.

Protesters hold up a hand-painted sign that reads: "Eric Adams: Blood is on your hands. Resign"
New York City Mayor Eric Adams has been the target of criticism in the wake of the killing of a homeless man on a subway train [File: Amr Alfiky/Reuters]

Prosecutors from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office have announced they plan to bring criminal charges against a United States Marine veteran who placed a homeless subway passenger in a deadly chokehold, sparking widespread outrage.

“We can confirm that Daniel Penny will be arrested on a charge of manslaughter in the second degree. We cannot provide any additional information until he has been arraigned in Manhattan Criminal Court, which we expect to take place tomorrow,” District Attorney Alvin Bragg said in a statement on Thursday.

The announcement comes after the death of 30-year-old Jordan Neely on May 1 prompted a nationwide debate about violence against people experiencing homelessness, as well as the social services available to them.

Video circulated online showing Penny, 24, holding Neely on the ground of an F train subway car with an arm wrapped around his neck. A New York City medical examiner later issued a report saying Neely died by homicide resulting from a “compression of [the] neck”.

In a statement through his lawyers, Penny expressed “condolences to those close to Mr Neely” but denied setting out to harm the 30-year-old. Penny “could not have foreseen his untimely death”, the lawyers wrote.

The statement also underscored that Neely had been acting aggressively on the subway train before his death. Other passengers told local news agencies that Neely was yelling that he was hungry and thirsty and that “he didn’t care about going to jail”. But there is no evidence that he was physically violent.

“When Mr. Neely began aggressively threatening Daniel Penny and the other passengers, Daniel, with the help of others, acted to protect themselves, until help arrived,” the statement from Penny’s lawyer reads.

On Monday, Neely’s family responded with a statement of their own: “Daniel Penny’s press release is not an apology nor an expression of regret. It is a character assassination, and a clear example of why he believed he was entitled to take Jordan’s life.”

They added: “You cannot ‘assist’ someone with a chokehold.”

A wall in a New York City subway station pole has a sticker on it that reads: "Justice for Jordan Neely". A woman looks at the camera from halfway behind the pole and on the other side is a blurry image of another woman with a mask on.
A sticker near the Broadway-Lafayette subway stop, close to where Jordan Neely died, calls for justice [File: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]

Last week, Moses Harper, an artist and friend of Neely’s, told the news outlet CNN that the 30-year-old struggled with mental health issues, particularly after the death of his mother in 2007. She had been killed by her boyfriend and stuffed in a suitcase when Neely was only 14.

“It traumatised him. He was not expecting that, the brutal way she was taken. That had a big impact on him,” Harper told CNN.

Neely, a subway performer known for his Michael Jackson routine, had more than 40 arrests before his killing, according to a police statement. He had an active warrant against him at the time of his death for a missed court date, after he previously pleaded guilty to assaulting a 67-year-old in 2021.

Penny had been questioned and released without charges in the immediate aftermath of Neely’s death, as police continued their investigation. But in the midst of widespread protests, there were growing calls for criminal charges to be filed, particularly from prominent left-leaning figures.

Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley compared Neely’s death to a lynching. New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, called it “murder” and evidence of the way “many in power demonise the poor”.

Police and protesters mix together outside of an NYPD van
Protesters gathered in New York City, US, to protest after the death of Jordan Neely, a local street performer who impersonated Michael Jackson [File: Andrew Kelly/Reuters]

New York City’s Mayor Eric Adams, a moderate Democrat, has come under fire for his response to the Neely killing, as well as for his broader policies on crime and poverty in the city.

A former New York City law enforcement officer who started his career with the city’s transit police, Adams has spearheaded a crackdown on homelessness, unveiling a safety plan that would remove people who were sheltering on transit cars and authorising the use of involuntary medical treatment when needed.

Adams initially refrained from commenting in depth on Neely’s death, saying, “There’s a lot we don’t know about what happened here.” But on Wednesday, he released a fuller statement, identifying with Neely as “a Black man like me”.

“Jordan Neely did not deserve to die,” Adams said. “Jordan Neely’s life mattered. He was suffering from severe mental illness, but that was not the cause of his death. His death is a tragedy that never should have happened.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies