By Jake OffenHartz, Bobby Caina Calvan, and Michael R. Sisak
A U.S. Marine veteran who placed an agitated New York City subway passenger in a chokehold, killing him and sparking outrage as video of the encounter went viral, surrendered Friday on a manslaughter charge brought nearly two weeks later.
Daniel Penny, 24, was freed pending trial hours after turning himself in at a police station and appearing in court to answer criminal charges in the May 1 death of Jordan Neely, a former subway performer with a history of mental illness. Penny did not enter a plea.
Neely's death prompted protests, while others embraced Penny as a vigilante hero. His lawyers have said he was acting in self-defense. Lawyers for Neely's family said Neely wasn’t harming anyone and didn’t deserve to die. An autopsy ruled Neely's death a homicide due to compression of the neck.
“Jordan Neely should still be alive today," Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said.
A judge authorized Penny’s release on $100,000 bond and ordered him to surrender his passport and not to leave New York without approval. Prosecutors said they are seeking a grand jury indictment. Penny is due back in court on July 17.
Penny didn't speak to reporters. At a brief arraignment, Penny faced straight ahead, his hands cuffed. He spoke softly, offering one-word answers to Judge Kevin McGrath as his lawyer, Steve Raiser, placed an arm around his shoulder. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison.
Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass, said Neely had been making threats and “scaring passengers” when Penny approached him from behind and placed him in a chokehold. Penny “continued to hold Mr. Neely in the chokehold for several minutes,” even after he stopped moving, Steinglass said.
A freelance journalist who recorded Neely struggling to free himself, then lapsing into unconsciousness, said he had been shouting at passengers and begging for money aboard the train but had not gotten physical with anyone. Penny pinned Neely to the floor of the subway car with the help of two other passengers and held him in a chokehold.
Neely's death has raised an uproar over many issues, including how the city treats people with mental illness, as well as crime, race and vigilantism. Police questioned Penny, who is white, in the aftermath but released him without charges. Neely was Black.
Thomas Kenniff, a lawyer for Penny, said he didn't mean to harm Neely and is dealing with the situation with the "integrity and honor that is characteristic of who he is and characteristic of his honorable service in the United States Marine Corps.”
Donte Mills, a lawyer for Neely's family, disputed Penny's version of events, saying the veteran “acted with indifference. He didn’t care about Jordan, he cared about himself. And we can’t let that stand.”
“Mr. Neely did not attack anyone." Mills said at a news conference Friday. "He did not touch anyone. He did not hit anyone. But he was choked to death."
Neely’s father, Andre Zachery, wept as another family lawyer, Lennon Edwards, recounted the last moments before Penny tackled Neely to the ground and put him in a chokehold.
“What did he think would happen?” Mills asked.
Neely, remembered by some commuters for his Michael Jackson impersonations, had been dealing with homelessness and mental illness in recent years, friends said. Neely had been arrested multiple times and had recently pleaded guilty for assaulting a 67-year-old woman leaving a subway station in 2021.
Mills said Neely's outlook changed after his mother was killed by her boyfriend in 2007. Through his struggles, Mills said, Neely found joy in singing, dancing and bringing a smile to other people's faces.
“No one on that train asked Jordan: ‘What’s wrong, how can I help you?'” Mills said, urging New Yorkers in a similar situation: “Don’t attack. Don’t choke. Don’t kill. Don’t take someone’s life. Don’t take someone’s loved one from them because they’re in a bad place.”
Roger Abrams, a community health representative, said he saw Neely on the subway a week before his death. Neely was disheveled and told people he was hungry and in need of spare change. Abrams said he approached Neely and asked him why he no longer performs.
“I haven’t been feeling well,” Abrams remembered Neely saying.
The Manhattan district attorney's office waited to file charges in part because prosecutors wanted to learn more about what happened aboard the train in the moments before Penny moved to restrain Neely. The delay helped fuel protests in the city. Some people climbed down to subway tracks, disrupting service and leading to arrests.
Mayor Eric Adams said Wednesday that Neely's death shouldn't have happened.
A second-degree manslaughter charge in New York will require the jury to find that a person has engaged in reckless conduct that creates an unjustifiable risk of death, and then consciously disregards that risk.
The law also requires that conduct to be a gross deviation from how a reasonable person would act in a similar situation.
Associated Press writers Bobby Caina Calvan and Karen Matthews contributed to this report.
UPDATES: This story has been updated with more from Neely's family lawyer and to link more audio files.