The New York City subway rider accused in the chokehold death of a homeless man is a U.S. Marine veteran who was acting to protect himself and other riders and never intended harm, his lawyers said Friday evening.
Daniel J. Penny, 24, has been identified by authorities as the man who allegedly put Jordan Neely in a chokehold following what police said was an altercation Monday on a northbound F train, according to two law enforcement officials familiar with the investigation.
“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,” lawyers for Penny said in a statement Friday evening. “Daniel never intended to harm Mr. Neely and could not have foreseen his untimely death.”
Neely, 30, was unconscious when police arrived at the Broadway and East Houston Street subway station, and pronounced dead at a hospital, New York police said.
He died from “compression of neck (chokehold)” and the manner was homicide, the city chief medical examiner’s office said. Penny was taken into custody Monday, questioned by police and released. No charges have been filed against him.
Lawmakers and others asked why he was not held by law enforcement authorities longer.
On Friday, two sources familiar with the matter said Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is expected to present the case to a grand jury for its consideration of possible charges. The timing of when charges might materialize or when the case would otherwise close without prosecution was not clear.
Penny’s lawyers said Neely had a documented history of violent and erratic behavior, the apparent result of ongoing and untreated mental illness.
“For too long, those suffering from mental illness have been treated with indifference,” the Raiser and Kenniff law firm said in its statement on behalf of Penny. “We hope that out of this awful tragedy will come a new commitment by our elected officials to address the mental health crisis on our streets and subways.”
The incident, partly captured on cellphone video, has sparked a national debate, with people denouncing vigilantism and some politicians demanding officials do more to address homelessness, mental health and violence on subways. Neely, a subway busker who performed dance routines in costume as Michael Jackson, suffered from mental illness, attorneys for his family said.
Who is Daniel Penny?
Penny graduated from West Islip High School on Long Island, New York, in 2016, a district spokesperson said Friday without disclosing additional details.
He served in the Marines between June 2017 and June 2021 in the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, and 2nd Marine Division, according to a spokesperson. He rose to the rank of sergeant and his last duty assignment was at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Penny was awarded two Sea Service Deployment Ribbons and five medals, including the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, the Humanitarian Service Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
In a statement, a spokesman for the Marines said the service branch was aware of what happened on the train and would “cooperate with the agencies investigating this incident if asked.”
But he added that the Marines could not confirm that a former service member was involved in the incident, saying that he was “merely confirming that a person with the name you’ve presented us has served in the Marine Corps.”
After the military, Penny enrolled in college but dropped out because he felt “completely unfulfilled” and instead backpacked through Central America, according to his profile on Harri, a recruitment and workforce management platform for the hospitality industry. He was looking for work as a bartender in Manhattan, the profile says.
More on Jordan Neely’s chokehold death
Multiple 911 calls
A police spokesman said officers were called to the station after they got a 911 call about a physical fight.
“Further investigation revealed the 30-year-old was involved in a verbal dispute with the 24-year-old male and it escalated into a physical altercation,” the spokesperson said in a phone call earlier this week. “During the physical struggle between the two males, the 30-year-old male lost consciousness.”
Two sources familiar with the matter say there were at least five 911 calls about the incident, including initial reports of a homeless man some found to be threatening in his mannerisms and volume.
Juan Alberto Vazquez was on the train and partly captured the altercation on his cellphone. The video, widely viewed, does not show what happened before the chokehold.
He told NBC New York that Neely got on the train and “began to say a somewhat aggressive speech, saying he was hungry, he was thirsty, that he didn’t care about anything, he didn’t care about going to jail, he didn’t care that he gets a big life sentence.”
Some witnesses said that Neely allegedly acted very aggressively toward other riders and threatened to harm them, the news station reported. Vazquez said Neely was held in the chokehold position for about 15 minutes.
A law firm hired by Neely’s family said he suffered from mental illness “which began at age 14 when he experienced the brutal murder of his mother.”
His mother, Christine Neely, was killed in 2007, stuffed inside a suitcase and left on the Henry Hudson Parkway in New York, NJ.com reported. Her boyfriend, Shawn Southerland, was convicted at a trial that Neely, then 18, testified in. He told the court that he tried to say goodbye to his mother before school on April 4, 2007, but Southerland refused to let him enter the bedroom. Neely said later that day Southerland packed up and left, according to the news outlet. Southerland was sentenced to 30 years in prison.