More than two weeks after Jordan Neely was choked to death inside a New York City subway car, grieving relatives and friends laid him to rest during an emotional service on Friday.
Neely’s 1 May death set off a polarised discussion about the city’s public mental health shortcomings, citizen vigilantism and racial bias after reports emerged that his alleged killer, 24-year-old Daniel Penny, held him in a chokehold for several minutes before police were called. Neely, a former Michael Jackson impersonator, had walked into the train car loudly complaining of hunger and thirst and saying he was not afraid to go to jail or die when Mr Penny grabbed him from behind and wrestled him to the ground.
He had been on the state’s Top 50 list, a log of New York residents with extensive mental health concerns kept by homeless-outreach workers, according to The New York Times. But whatever help Neely was meant to receive from being added to the list ultimately did not prevent his tragic fate, Reverend Al Sharpton said during his eulogy at the Mt Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem.
“Jordan was screaming for help. We keep criminalising people with mental illness,” the reverend said, per the Times. “They don’t need abuse, they need help.”
Addressing the crowd at the funeral — where other prominent figures such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and public advocate Jumanee Williams also delivered remarks —, Mr Sharpton described Neely’s killing as a crime and decried Mr Penny’s release after a brief arrest last week.
“Because when they choked Jordan, they put their arms around all of us … All of us have the right to live,” Mr Sharpton said during the service. “We can’t live in a city where you can choke me to death with no provocation, no weapon, no threat, and you go home and sleep in your bed while my family got to put me in a cemetery.”
Mr Sharpton also criticised Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ assertion that Mr Penny was a “good Samaritan.”
“A good Samaritan helps those in trouble,” Mr Sharpton said, according to The Mercury News. “They don’t choke him out … What happened to Jordan was a crime and this family shouldn’t have to stand by themselves.”
Neely’s funeral was held at the same church where his mother’s service took place more than 15 years ago. She was killed by her boyfriend and her body was dumped in a suitcase when Neely was just 14 years old.
He testified in the murder case, according to the Times.
Mr Penny surrendered to the New York City Police Department on 12 May after he was charged with second-degree murder but was released after posting $100,000 bail.
Neely’s death was recorded on a cell phone and shared widely. The investigation has involved several witness interviews, a review of photo and video evidence, and a discussion with the medical examiner’s office, which determined Neely’s cause of death was a homicide.
Witnesses have said that Neely did not physically attack anyone on the train that day.
Lawmakers and advocacy groups have pointed to Neely’s killing and prevailing attitudes endorsing vigilante violence as a tragic consequence of an epidemic of failed policy and institutional neglect towards the city’s most vulnerable populations.
Mr Penny has been hailed as a hero by right-wing personalities in claims that echo across social media; Fox News host Greg Gutfeld described the manslaughter charges as “pro-criminal” and “anti-hero”. An online fundraising campaign for Mr Penny’s legal defence was launched on the Christian crowdfunding platform GiveSendGo, a website created in response to GoFundMe removing far-right campaigns that violated its terms of service. The fundraiser has collected nearly $2.6m as of 19 May.
Neely’s family and the legal team supporting them have repeatedly characterised Mr Penny as the sole aggressor who escalated Neely’s distress to lethal violence.
“Daniel Penny is getting a chance to rewrite his story as time goes by,” Lennon Edwards said during a news conference in Manhattan on 12 May. “He cannot rewrite how the story ends. The story ends with his arms wrapped around Jordan’s neck and choking him to death.”
Attorney Donte Mills asserted that “there was no attack” against subway passengers before Mr Penny grabbed Neely by his neck and pinned him to the floor of the train.
“Mr Neely did not attack anyone. He did not touch anyone. He did not hit anyone. But he was choked to death,” Mr Mills said.
Mr Penny “acted with indifference,” Mr Mills said.
“He didn’t care about Jordan, he cared about himself. And we can’t let that stand,” he added. “What did he think would happen?”
Neely, who was known for his precise Michael Jackson impersonation on the street and in the subway, was well-known among homeless outreach workers and emergency responders. He was arrested numerous times, mostly for minor crimes, and for at least two instances of assault on the subway.
Attorneys for Mr Penny said in a statement shared with The Independent that they are “confident” he will be “fully absolved of any wrongdoing” when all the “facts and circumstances” emerge.
“When Mr Penny, a decorated Marine veteran, stepped in to protect himself and his fellow New Yorkers, his well-being was not assured. He risked his own life and safety, for the good of his fellow passengers,” according to the statement from the firm Raiser and Kenniff.
“The unfortunate result was the unintended and unforeseen death of Mr Neely,” they wrote.
Mr Penny is scheduled to appear in court for his next hearing on 17 July.