Issue 152
May 28, 2023
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Earlier this month, a mentally unstable homeless man named Jordan Neely began aggressively harassing passengers aboard a New York subway. A 24-year-old former marine, Daniel Penny, intervened and subdued Mr. Neely in a chokehold. Minutes later Jordan Neely was dead. Mr. Penny was arrested and charged with manslaughter. He could serve up to 15 years if found guilty.

Unfortunately, crimes committed in New York’s transit system are commonplace. Since 2020, 27 people have been killed on the subway, hundreds more assaulted, and thousands harassed. Local news will sometimes report on the most horrific crimes, like straphangers being pushed into moving trains, onto the tracks, or sexual deviants exposing themselves. But typically, even when an incident results in death, it does not make the national news.

Two primary reasons this alleged crime garnered national attention were because the victim, Jordan Neely, was black, and the perpetrator, Daniel Penny, was white and it involved a debate about vigilante justice. Secondary reasons included a shortage of mental health services in New York and other major metropolises and a general decline of public order.

Preordained Conclusions

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, this case has split the nation mainly down political and ideological lines.

Daniel Penny’s supporters, most of whom lean to the right, called his actions heroic. They argued his case served as a poignant example of a man defending his fellow citizens from a mentally unhinged individual threatening to cause bodily harm to one or many innocent people; race was not a factor. Those in the pro-Penny camp argue he never intended to cause lasting physical harm, let alone death. They maintain that while regrettable, Neely’s death was clearly accidental and that Penny was justified in putting Neely in a chokehold. They noted that two other individuals who have not yet been named or charged subdued Neely too.

Presidential Candidate Ron DeSantis (R-FL) called Daniel Penny a good Samaritan and said, “let’s show this Marine… America’s got his back.” Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL) referred to Penny as a "Subway Superhuman,” (whatever that means). Supporters have donated ~2.6 million dollars to his defense fund.

Critics, the overwhelming majority of whom lean left, rejected Penny’s claims of self-defense and/or defense of others. They point out that Neely never physically assaulted anybody on the train before Penny intervened. They argued that Neely’s case was a textbook example of vigilante justice and would inspire more of it, highlighted the failures of the (mental health) system in New York, and has a big racial component. Almost all critics agree that Daniel Penny was appropriately charged with manslaughter, with some advocating for a murder charge.

Said Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY), “Jordan Neely was murdered…because he was crying for food.” Al Sharpton said, “If you do not prosecute ... you will set a standard of vigilantism that we cannot tolerate.” New York Public Advocate Jumaane Williams (D-NY) added “I don’t know the intent of Daniel Penny when he choked #JordanNeely to death, nor all that happened before the video began…I do know that if a black, homeless man choked a white marine to death because he was scared, he'd be sitting in Rikers unable to pay the bail set for him.”

In solidarity with Jordan Neely, protesters gummed up subway stations, some jumped onto the tracks, others refused to let passengers disembark from a train idled at a station and chanted “no justice, no peace.” At least seven people were arrested.

In our view, any conservative who yelled “hero!” and any liberal who screamed “murderer!” before all the facts of this case are presented and who did not bother to educate themselves about the laws regarding self-defense in NY should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. The only things anybody should consider regarding Daniel Penny’s fate are the facts of this case and the state laws pertaining to self-defense in New York.

The Law

According to D’Emilia Law, criminal defense lawyers in New York State:

Under New York Law, a person is justified in using physical force against another when that person is under the reasonable belief that the physical force is necessary to defend the person or another person from what the person reasonably believes to be the illegal imminent use of force or the illegal use of force…Deadly physical force which is the type of force that is capable of causing a serious physical injury or death is not permitted unless a person reasonably believes that deadly physical force is being used or is about to be used on himself, herself or a third person. Even in such a situation however, the law imposes on a person a duty to retreat before he or she can resort to using deadly physical force if they can retreat with complete safety…New York law does not impose a duty to retreat in your own home if you are not the initial aggressor or if a person is under a reasonable belief that the attacker is attempting to commit or is committing a forcible rape, robbery, kidnapping or forcible criminal sexual act.”

What Happened

Anybody who saw the video can see what happened when Daniel Penny was restraining Jordan Neely in a chokehold that resulted in his death. What transpired before (and after) the video was recorded is currently being debated.

While all media outlets reported that Jordan Neely was screaming and acting erratically, important nuances in reporting have reinforced preconceived viewpoints. Left leaning outlets highlighted that Neely said, "I don't have food, I don't have a drink, I'm fed up," that he had not assaulted anyone, that Penny kept him subdued even after Neely fell limp, and that one passenger told Penny to release Neely.

Conservative media reported that before Penny intervened Neely screamed that he was willing to “kill a motherf****r, take a bullet and go to jail.” And highlighted that a witness, a yet to be named black woman, said she would testify on Penny’s behalf, believed NY DA Alvin Bragg only brought charges because of public pressure, and that politicians were trying to create a narrative about race where one did not exist. Said the witness who requested anonymity, “Anything that can help Mr. Penny, but also help the homeless or mentally ill individual out on the streets that could find themselves in the same situation – the answer is concern for all citizens of all colors…I think [Bragg’s decision to charge Penny] was political…I hope he (Penny) has a great lawyer, and I’m praying for him…And I pray that he gets treated fairly, I really do. Because after all of this ensued, I went back and made sure that I said ‘Thank you’ to him…the politicians who posted their opinions seem to be trying to create a narrative and make it about race.”

Both liberal and conservative media are at fault. Their job is to report the news, not create a subtle narrative by highlighting and or omitting important facts to shape the majority of their audiences’ viewpoints.

Jordan Neely

Some of Jordan Neely’s friends argue that he would not have harmed anybody if Daniel Penny left him alone. We will never know if that is true. We do know that Jordan Neely had a history of mental illness and violence.

Before losing his life in a chokehold, Neely had been arrested over 40 times. Four of his arrests involved unprovoked physical assaults. Once he broke a senior citizen’s nose. Another time he fractured a woman’s orbital bone. In another instance he tried to push somebody onto the train tracks. He was also arrested and convicted of child endangerment for attempting to kidnap a 7-year-old girl.

Let us be certain, Mr. Neely’s violent past is mutually exclusive from this case and should have no bearing on whether Daniel Penny is found guilty or innocent; only the facts about this case matter and those will be presented in court.

However, given that Neely’s former crimes included unprovoked assault and child endangerment, it would not be unreasonable to take the contra side of Mr. Neely’s friends’ viewpoint.

Mental Health, Personal Accountability & Hypocrisy

At TQC, we strongly believe that we cannot and should not criminalize mental illness; people who are severely mentally ill should be confined to treatment facilities, not cycling in and out of BS outpatient venues or prison. That said, people who are mentally ill that commit crimes must be held accountable. Those are two mutually exclusive things that politicians from both ideologies talk past each other about and conflate.

New York City Council member Tiffany Caban (D-NY) said, “people experiencing homelessness, mental illness, hunger, and frustration need and deserve compassion, not force.” We agree with the first part of her argument but vehemently reject the rest. In our view, we have a moral responsibility to help the mentally ill and homeless via a combination of treatment, compassion, medication, food, and housing. We are failing miserably at that and agree with those on the left who argue that grossly insufficient resources are available to help the homeless and mentally ill.

Regarding Caban’s position on “force,” she is wrong. Mentally ill individuals – not sane people who happen to be homeless – who pose a dangerous threat to society should be forced into inpatient facilities until they are deemed no longer a threat to their fellow citizens or themselves. Furthermore, we take a different view than Ms. Caban regarding what compassion entails. Allowing a mentally ill person who clearly cannot care for themselves to roam free on the streets is not compassionate, it is cruel. Remanding them to treatment centers for their own and others' protection, but not throwing away the key, and releasing them when and if they get healthy is compassionate.

Ironically, some of the very people who are emphatically against involuntarily confining the mentally ill are the same people complaining that Jordan Neely did not get the help commensurate with his needs.

Mental health patients were deinstitutionalized in the mid-1970’s. In aggregate that was a good thing because too often mentally ill but nonviolent patients were locked up unnecessarily. Unfortunately, the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction. The result: Too many mentally ill people who pose a threat to society and should be involuntarily confined to mental hospitals and or treatment centers are instead left roaming the streets committing the same crimes over and again.

In New York, prosecutors can offer treatment instead of jail for criminals suffering from mental illness. That is exactly what NY District Attorney Alvin Bragg decided was appropriate for Jordan Neely. After Neely assaulted a woman and fractured her face, Bragg ordered Neely into treatment. As one might expect, Neely then walked out of treatment. He was not detained. He ended up dead.

Said Jordan Neely’s uncle, “how do you tell someone ‘Listen, you need to go to a mental health facility,’ but you also give them the power to check themselves out?” Good Question.

To that end we agree with conservatives that too many soft-on-crime prosecutors fail to punish criminals in a manner commensurate with their infractions. Not enough consequences for committing violent crime fosters a community of zero accountability, increased levels of lawlessness, and degradation of daily life.

We must allocate more resources for mental health services (and homelessness), make it easier to involuntarily commit the mentally ill to in-patient treatment centers, and demand that prosecutors and judges do so. Our current method(s) of dealing with the mentally ill defines insanity.

The People v Daniel Penny

As one can surmise from the excerpt earlier in this post, the law(s) surrounding self-defense in New York are granular and complex. It will be up to a jury to determine what if any culpability Daniel Penny had in Jordan Neely’s death. Penny has yet to be tried but one thing is for certain, in this case everybody lost.

If there is a silver lining, perhaps this regrettable incident will catalyze a positive material change in the way we deal with the mentally ill and homeless. They desperately need more and better help than the status quo.