Subway Rider Choked Homeless Man to Death, Medical Examiner Rules
"Jordan Neely died after a man held him in a chokehold. On Wednesday, the medical examiner’s office said the cause of death was compression of the neck, and ruled it a homicide.
The death of a New York City subway rider who was placed in a chokehold by another passenger on Monday was ruled a homicide, the city’s medical examiner confirmed on Wednesday evening.
The man who died, Jordan Neely, was homeless and had been screaming at passengers when the other rider wrapped his arms around Mr. Neely’s neck and head and held him for several minutes until he went limp. Mr. Neely died from compression to his neck as a result of the chokehold, according to Julie Bolcer, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner.
The killing, on an F train in Manhattan, has led to investigations by both the police and prosecutors, a spokesman for Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg said. As of Wednesday afternoon, nobody had been arrested.
“As part of our rigorous ongoing investigation, we will review the Medical Examiner’s report, assess all available video and photo footage, identify and interview as many witnesses as possible, and obtain additional medical records,” the district attorney’s spokesman said in a statement.
“This investigation is being handled by senior, experienced prosecutors and we will provide an update when there is additional public information to share,” he added.
On Monday, a man who was riding in the same subway car went up to Mr. Neely, a 30-year-old Michael Jackson impersonator who was yelling that he was hungry and ready to die. The 24-year-old man who choked Mr. Neely has not been identified.
The episode, filmed on a nearly four-minute video that shows other riders helping to pin down Mr. Neely while others looked on, has led to a police investigation and spurred advocates for the homeless, city officials and others to call for an arrest. Gov. Kathy Hochul said she needed to review the incident more closely but called the man’s death troubling.
“It was deeply disturbing,” she told reporters.
The incident comes as the city grapples with how to reduce both crime and the number of people with mental illness living on the streets, while also respecting the rights of its most vulnerable residents. The two issues have become the twin focuses of Mayor Eric Adams, who has sent more police to patrol train stations and to sweep homeless encampments even as he has supported policies that offer a gentler approach to people who are homeless and mentally ill.
Any criminal case could come down to whether the man who placed the rider in a chokehold was justified in using force, according to legal specialists.
Under New York law, a person may use physical force on another person if they have a reasonable belief that it is necessary to defend themselves or others. But a person can only use deadly physical force if they have reason to believe that an attacker is doing or about to do the same.
The police and prosecutors must determine what the intentions of the rider were when he grabbed Mr. Neely, if the rider felt physically threatened and if other passengers believed they had a reason to fear for their safety, said Karen Friedman Agnifilo, a former prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
“The D.A.’s office is going to do a painstaking investigation where they are going to interview every witness and look at the video frame by frame,” she said.
The police, who questioned the 24-year-old man and let him go on Monday night, said that they were investigating the death. A spokesman for the Manhattan district attorney said that they were also investigating. An official briefed on the investigation confirmed Mr. Neely’s identity, although the police have yet to do so.
Mayor Eric Adams called the death “tragic,” and said “there’s a lot we don’t know about what happened here.” He added, “However, we do know that there were serious mental health issues in play here, which is why our administration has made record investments in providing care to those who need it and getting people off the streets and the subways, and out of dangerous situations.”
There were signs that the debate about the outcome had already begun. On CNN, the mayor urged caution, rebutting a statement by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that Mr. Neely had been “murdered.”
He added: “I don’t think that’s very responsible at the time where we’re still investigating the situation. Let’s let the D.A. conduct his investigation with the law enforcement officials.”
Homeless advocates stood behind the victim. “There was no empathy on that train car,” said Karim Walker, an organizing and outreach specialist at the Urban Justice Center, who works with people who are homeless. There should be accountability for the death of Mr. Neely, he said.
“He did not need to nor did he deserve to die in the manner that he did,” Mr. Walker said. “That’s what really scares me and that’s what really breaks my heart.”
Witnesses said that Mr. Neely was acting in a “hostile and erratic manner” toward other passengers on the train, according to the police.
Juan Alberto Vazquez, a freelance journalist who was riding on the train and who shot the video, said the victim was yelling about being hungry and thirsty. “‘I don’t mind going to jail and getting life in prison,’” Mr. Vazquez recalled him saying. “‘I’m ready to die.’”
That kind of language might have led other passengers to believe that Mr. Neely was going to do something violent, said Todd Spodek, a criminal defense lawyer.
“I imagine that the collective feeling on that train was that something was happening,” he said.
The case raises questions about how people respond to the actions of the “poor, the unhoused and most especially those perceived as suffering from mental illness,” said Christopher Fee, an English professor at Gettysburg College who teaches about homelessness.
“Those bystanders may have felt threatened by the victim, but they were not in fact attacked by him,” he said. “Still, they watched him die.”
Left-leaning politicians called the death of Mr. Neely, who was Black, a “lynching” by the other rider, who appeared to be white.
Adrienne Adams, the City Council speaker, said in a statement that the legal system’s initial response to Mr. Neely’s killing was disturbing, and put “on display for the world the double standards that Black people and other people of color continue to face,” adding: “The perceptions of Black people have long been interpreted through a distorted, racialized lens that aims to justify violence against us.”
Mr. Vazquez said it did not appear as if Mr. Neely was suffocating, but after learning he died, he became troubled by what he had seen on the train.
The reaction of bystanders reflects what can happen to many when they witness a crisis, said Lee Ann DeShong-Cook, assistant professor of social work at Juniata College.
They “were experiencing various levels of fight, flight or freeze,” she said, adding, “had someone simply offered the homeless man a bottle of water or a snack he might have been able to calm down, re-engage his rational brain and would still be alive today.”
Workers from the Bowery Residents’ Committee, which does homeless outreach in the subways, had known Mr. Neely since 2017, according to a person familiar with his history with social services.
A team had spotted him on the subway as recently as March 22. He appeared to be struggling with both mental illness and substance use disorder, according to his records. At one point, he lived at a safe-haven shelter, which has more privacy and fewer restrictions than other shelters.
Until recent years, the subway was where Mr. Neely had felt happy and free to perform as a dancer, said his friend, Moses Harper, an artist who met Mr. Neely in 2009, when he was 16 years old.
Mr. Neely would dress up as Michael Jackson during his “Thriller” stage and ride the trains, moon-walking in front of commuters.
Mr. Neely and Ms. Harper, who also impersonates Michael Jackson, bonded over being street artists. Ms. Harper said she lost touch with Mr. Neely until she saw him again on a cold day in 2016, walking through subway cars with his head down.
The two left the station and walked several blocks together, talking. She gave him her shirt, some food, and told him where she lived.
Ms. Harper said she urged him to come find her when he was ready to get help.
“He said, ‘I’m going to get it together,’” she said. “And that’s the last time I saw him.”
Emon Thompson, 30, who lives in Jamaica, Queens, said she first saw Mr. Neely about two weeks ago at around 1 a.m. after she boarded an F train in Lower Manhattan.
“He was very upset at the time, and most of us just looked at him,” Ms. Thompson recalled. “He said he needed help and kept repeating the words, ‘food, shelter, I need a job.’”
Ms. Thompson saw him again a week later, at about 8 p.m., when she and her 8-year-old son were on a Manhattan-bound F train. She said she gave him some money and he thanked her “for five minutes.”
Mr. Neely seemed tired, Ms. Thompson said, and told her he was embarrassed that he had not showered.
“I could tell he was at his wit’s end, you know?” she said. “He didn’t look as if he wanted to beg and he looked mad that he even had to do that.”
Jonah E. Bromwich, Jeffery C. Mays and Andy Newman contributed reporting."