By Luc Cohen and Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) -The former U.S. Marine sergeant accused of fatally strangling Jordan Neely, a homeless man, in a chokehold in a New York subway car last month pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in court on Wednesday.
Daniel Penny, 24, was captured in videos recorded by bystanders putting Neely in a chokehold from behind for several minutes on May 1 while they rode on a subway train in Manhattan.
The killing drew national attention and sparked protests that month by those angered that police did not immediately arrest Penny, who is white, following the death of Neely, a Black man. Penny was arrested more than a week later.
In a brief arraignment lasting only a few minutes, Penny, wearing a blue suit and red tie, pleaded not guilty in criminal court in lower Manhattan. The former Marine, who had been released on a $100,000 bond at an earlier hearing, was told to return to court on Oct. 25 for a pretrial hearing.
Earlier this month, a grand jury voted to indict Penny on a charge of manslaughter in the second degree, a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison on conviction, and a charge of criminally negligent homicide, a felony with a maximum sentence of five years.
In the minutes before he was killed, Neely, a 30-year-old former Michael Jackson impersonator who struggled with mental illness, had been shouting about how hungry he was and that he was willing to return to jail or die, according to passengers in the subway car.
Penny has said he acted to defend himself and other passengers, and did not intend to kill Neely.
Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse after the hearing, one of Penny’s defense attorneys, Thomas Kenniff, said he believed New York jurors would be sympathetic to his client.
“There is not a living, breathing soul in Manhattan that has not experienced a variation of what not only Mr. Penny but other individuals experienced on that subway car,” Kenniff said.
Protesters have decried Penny as a vigilante and characterized Neely’s death as a lynching.
Some conservatives have hailed Penny as a hero, including Florida Governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis and other prominent Republican politicians who are critical of New York’s Democratic leadership. Donors have given nearly $3 million to a legal defense fund for Penny through a crowdsourcing website.
Donte Mills, a lawyer representing Neely’s family, addressed those supporters in his remarks outside the courthouse.
“For everyone who thought donating $3 million would somehow make this go away or buy his pass: It’s not going to happen,” Mills told reporters. “You can ask for a refund.”
Police questioned Penny on the day Neely died, but the former Marine would not be arrested and make an initial court appearance until 11 days later.
Witnesses have said Neely did not physically threaten or attack anyone before Penny grabbed him. His killing renewed debate about gaps in the city’s systems for homeless and mentally ill New Yorkers.
Neely had been in and out of the city’s homeless shelters in recent years; his relatives say his mental health worsened dramatically after his mother was murdered when he was a teenager. He had been arrested many times, most recently for punching a 67-year-old woman in 2021, breaking bones in her face.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Alistair Bell and Jonathan Oatis)
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