Ethics And The Death Of Jordan Neely

You know the story by now, presumably. A week ago, Jordan Neely, a homeless and mentally ill black man, was shouting at passengers riding with him in the subway. He was apparent getting in passengers’ faces and causing significant anxiety. A 24-year-old former Marine, Daniel Penny, decided that it was his civic duty to intervene, especially since there were no law enforcement authorities in the car. He tackled and restrained Neely (apparently some other riders assisted), put him in a chokehold, and held him until he became unconscious. Neely was later pronounced dead at a hospital. New York City’s medical examiner ruled that Neely died from compression of the neck and classified the death as a homicide, which does not automatically mean it was a crime. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office is investigating. So far, Penny has not been charged.

It is Penny’s misfortune to be white, so the usual race-bating activists and demagogues are framing the episode as “George Floyd II.” Fortunately Neely did not say “I can’t breathe” before passing out.

Ethics Observation #1: The presumed racial animus that was attached to the Floyd case will keep repeating itself in such incidents until it is decisively rejected. As the culture has been conditioned now, whenever a white man is involved in the death of a black man, the motive is presumed to be racism, and the crime a hate crime.

Penny, who was only officially named three days ago, released this statement through his lawyers:

“Earlier this week Daniel Penny was involved in a tragic incident on the NYC Subway, which ended in the death of Jordan Neely. We would first like to express, on behalf of Daniel Penny, our condolences to those close to Mr. Neely. Mr Neely had a documented history of violent and erratic behavior, the apparent result of ongoing and untreated mental illness. When Mr Neely began aggressively threatening Daniel Penny and the other passengers, Daniel, with the help of others, acted to protect themselves, until help arrived. Daniel never intended to harm Mr Neely and could not have foreseen his untimely death. For too long, those suffering from mental illness have been treated with indifference. We hope that out of this awful tragedy will come a new commitment by our elected officials to address the mental health crisis on our streets and subways.”

Ethics Observation #2: This is a statement by lawyers, and should be regarded in that light. Shifting responsibility to the city is a predictable strategy, but the fact remains that Neely is dead due to the actions of Penny. The statement that Penny “could not have foreseen his untimely death” is especially problematical, since there is evidence that Penny was warned that his chokehold might kill Neely, as in fact it did.

Neely’s family responded, also through lawyers, in the manner one should expect from those looking for monetary damages and revenge, and lawyers seeking a large contingent fee:

“Daniel Penny’s press release is not an apology nor an expression of regret. It is a character assassination and a clear example of why he believed he was entitled to take Jordan’s life. In the first paragraph, he talks about how “good” he is and the next paragraph he talks about how “bad” Jordan was in an effort to convince us Jordan’s life was “worthless.” The truth is, he knew nothing about Jordan’s history when he intentionally wrapped his arms around Jordan’s neck, and squeezed and kept squeezing. In the last paragraph, Daniel Penny suggests that the general public has shown “indifference” for people like Jordan, but that term is more appropriately used to describe himself. It is clear he is the one who acted with indifference, both at the time he killed Jordan and now in his first public message. He never attempted to help him at all. In short, his actions on the train, and now his words, show why he needs to be in prison. Mayor Eric Adams, give us a call. The family wants you to know Jordan matters. You seem to think others are more important than him.”

Ethics Observation #3: Of course Penny’s statement doesn’t apologize or express regret: doing so would almost guarantee a finding of liability in a civil suit. It’s a disingenuous statement by the lawyers. Penny’s statement never calls Neely “bad”; it accurately describes him as having “a documented history of violent and erratic behavior.” It is true that Penny could not have known that history when he intervened; it is also relevant information now. Penny took action to stop Neely from what he reasonably perceived might be an assault on passengers: that counts as trying to help the disturbed man as well as coming to the assistance of those who Penny thought were Neely’s potential victims.

Ethics Observation #4: Whatever the family was doing to show that it thought Jordan Neely’s life mattered, it wasn’t enough. And the direct and deliberate use of the “Black Lives Matter” dog whistle is irresponsible and despicable.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted on Twitter: “Republicans keep blaming mass shootings on mental health, but then defend the killing of the mentally ill too.”

Ethics Observation #5: She’s beneath contempt. But we knew that.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a former police officer, refused to play AOC’s game, and has not condemned Penny, saying, “We need to be extremely clear that from Day 1 of this administration, I focused on: We cannot have people with severe emotional illnesses on our subway system.”

Ethics Observation #6: When the government does not adequately protect the public, the public will act to protect itself, and has every right to do so. The peril a volunteer rescuer like Penny naturally risks is, as in this case, losing control of events while lacking authority that can insulate him from unintended consequences. That sign above calling Penny a “coward” is reprehensible. He acted courageously and placed himself in harm’s way. Nevertheless, he did not have a right to kill Jordan Neely.

In Ann Althouse’s post about the incident, she concludes, “Before you accuse the Marine, I’d say, you need to blame the city for not making the subway safe.”

Ethics Observation #7: Both the city and Penny are accountable. So is the system that allows potentially dangerous homeless and mentally ill people to be able to place themselves and others in harm’s way. So is Neely’s family.

In a superb overview for the National Review, former prosecutor Andrew McCarthy makes many important points. Among them:

  • “In a sensible world, the happenstance of the racial difference would go unmentioned because, objectively, it was irrelevant….Neely was not discriminating about the racial and ethnic composition of the passengers he harassed and frightened….Penny obviously did not hop on the subway thinking, ‘Good day to hunt down young black men.’”
  • “The happenstance of racial disparity made no difference, except to the demagogues who carp their way to control of our public debate — to whom it is now the only thing that matters. We need to learn to ignore them.”

  • “Of course Jordan Neely’s life mattered. But so did the life of the 67-year-old woman he punched in the head on November 12, 2021, fracturing her orbital bone and breaking her nose — as a result of which he spent over a year in Rikers Island. Neely’s life also mattered when he was repeatedly arrested and left untreated, despite the patent danger he had become to himself and those around him.”

  • “The point is that when we obsess over race, as the Left would have us do, we miss violent crime’s critical causative factor — recidivism. The fact that young black males, as a class, offend at a rate disproportionate to their percentage of the overall population should not obscure the more salient fact that a disproportionate amount of crime is committed by repeat offenders — and too many of those recidivists have mental-health problems.”

  • “If we’re going to worry about race in the context of crime, we should worry about how black communities are disproportionately harmed by our conscious failure to tackle recidivism and mental illness. That is to say, recidivists belong in prison: We don’t have an over-incarceration problem; our problem is under-incarceration of committed offenders.”

  • “What happened on the F train Monday did not happen because of race. It happened because race has become an excuse not to deal with what actually ails us.”

Ethics Observation #8:


27 thoughts on “Ethics And The Death Of Jordan Neely

  1. Jack, does this story alter at all your apparent stance that the mentally ill should not be institutionalized? I think not doing so is the biggest failure of public policy of my lifetime. I think having severely mentally ill people not taking available and effective medicines and roaming the streets is simply irresponsible and wrong to the point of being criminal. Sure, there were abuses prior to the ‘sixties in mental hospitals, but the current situation is untenable and a disgrace.

    • I had a student whose grandfather was killed by a mentally ill man at the restaurant across the street from my office. The man went into the restaurant, started flailing about and knocked the student’s grandfather into the counter, killing him. The killer’s brother was an attorney and no charges were eventually pursued. The man wasn’t institutionalized because he ‘wasn’t violent’. It is true that he didn’t mean to kill anyone, his behavior just happened to kill someone. This man sat on the sidewalk across the street from my office almost every day. My student had to look at his grandfather’s killer almost every day for the 4 years he went to school here.

      After killing my student’s grandfather, this man wrote a letter to the President of the US, threatening to kill him. When the Secret Service came to investigate, they found him walking the streets with a chainsaw. The Secret Service determined that he wasn’t a threat because he had no means of getting to D.C. and left.

      Yeah, I feel safe. This isn’t like its uncommon. My favorite incident was when my wife called the police on a woman who got into a verbal altercation with a trash can. The argument escalated to violence and the woman lost, ending up pinned beneath the trash can by the time police arrived. As they hauled her away, my wife said the woman kept screaming “She started it!”

      • A long time ago, I was on business in NYC and preparing to cross the street when a homeless man, dressed in rags and obviously stark-raving mad, pointed at me and shouted, “YOU!!!!” like he had seen Beelzebub himself. Then he started lurching across the street, coming right at me with his arm still outstretched. He was knocked down by a cab, and I beat it the hell out of there.

      • My best friend from high school, our class valedictorian, went off to Princeton on a full ride scholarship when we went off to school in the fall of 1969. By the following spring, our second semester, he was a full-blown schizophrenic. He lived under a bridge in Miami, Florida for thirteen years before his family got him to move into housing. He died a year ago in a fire that consumed the trailer he was living in. Probably fell asleep with a cigarette or joint left burning. Schizophrenia is evidently treatable with medicines, which, of course, he refused to take because the meds were poison with which people were trying to kill him. Fortunately, the only violence I ever saw from him was a hole he punched in the front door of a house he was living in while “propagating plants” and terrorizing the young woman with whom he’d had a daughter. Also fortunately, the mother and child left him for their safety. High intelligence can be a double-edged sword.

      • My paternal grandfather was schizophrenic. In 1973, when I was almost three years old, he decided to stay home from church and let the rest of his family go without him. While they were gone, he hanged himself in the garage.

        • Awful. Perhaps he was sometimes well enough or medicated enough to recognize his suffering as unbearable. I think my friend always thought he was right and everyone else was simply wrong.

    • I am wonderinf if we should en act a law authorizing military commissions to commit people to mental institutions upon a finding that they are mentally ill, after an adversarial proceeding where both sides have a chance to present evidence and testimony.

      What would be the downside?

  2. This incident made me think of something that happened at the bowling alley recently. It was a league night and lanes 1-18 were the league, lanes 19-20 were children of league bowlers practicing, and lane 21 was wives of league bowlers open bowling. Lanes 22-24 were other people. The youth bowlers on lane 20 finished and a group of 4 black women in their 20’s began bowling there. It seems that they were swearing a lot and an elderly woman on lane 21 told them to watch their language around the children (the bowlers on lane 19 were under 10). The women on lane 20 got offended and started yelling and then attacking the women on lane 21. The spouses of the women came to pull their wives away (literally) and one was bitten 3 times and a second one was hit over the head with a chair and knocked unconscious (before going into diabetic shock). That is when everything erupted. I looked down the lane to see a large league member with one of the women from lane 20 in a headlock, then he squeezed and I watched her eyes bulge. I wondered what the legal implications of that were.

    I wonder what would have happened if he had killed her. What would have happened if all those women had been killed? I mean, these 4 women came into league night, physically attacked 2 elderly wives of league bowlers, then picked a fight with over 70 people. That is a good way to get yourself killed. Despite this, they were still struggling, biting, cursing, and threatening everyone even after being restrained. I’m sure this was described as a racist incident in town. I don’t care. These women seem much too dangerous to be allowed to run free in society. Remember, the lane next to them was occupied by children under 10. As far as I know, they were not charged with anything and just banned from the bowling alley. I wonder if the city worried about a racist outrage if they had been charged. If the woman had been killed in the headlock, I don’t think there should be charges filed. She needed to be restrained immediately. That guy stepped up and did it. If you don’t want to die that way, don’t behave in ways that will get you killed.

    You may be wondering if this happens a lot. I asked and everyone said this is the first time something like that has happened to their memory (so, at least not in the last 30 years). There have been arguments and an occasional punch thrown by drunk guys at their ‘friends’, but not an attack on strangers and nothing like that. Everyone was left wondering, ‘What is this country coming to?”

  3. Before we adopt the belief that the guy was in a chokehold we should ask the coroner if the neck compression was on the larynx or the corotid artery.
    Virtually every form of self defense or the defense of others is dangerous to both people.
    I see this as a case of moral luck such that had no one intervened we might be just having a simply blurb on page 10 of the Times saying mentally disturbed man kills passenger on F train while bystanders watched.
    Where in the hell was Neely’s family when it was apparent that he was going to do something that might get him killed. I have no sympathy for them.
    While Neely’s violent history may not have been known to passengers on that train those passengers are well aware of the number of violent incidents on the trains and platforms. To hold one person accountable for what could be foreseeable while indemnifying others from a similar responsibility with respect to Neely’s potential behavior is unjust.

    • How does the duty to confront work here. I have read many a story about CVS and dog walking, had the man done nothing it could just as well been someone pushed onto the tracks.

  4. What gets me is that there is a strong push to move everyone from using private transport (cars) to using public transport (trains, buses, subways). Meanwhile, the public transport services are being used as dumping grounds for the criminally insane and drug addled homeless population. This turns public transport into a hellacious experience that no one would willingly subject themselves to. A rational person would expect a government that wishes its population to use public transport to make that public transport system comfortable, convenient, safe and efficient. Yet the government does the exact opposite of what a rational person would expect.

    I don’t know what the ethical thing to do is regarding the homeless, but I’m pretty sure the status quo is not ethical to anyone involved. Letting mentally ill people take drugs all day and run amok in public spaces scaring and attacking people doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help the mentally ill and it doesn’t help the public.

  5. One (but not me) could almost feel sorry for Alvin Bragg on this one. Mayor Adams, obviously sniffing the winds, has dumped this one entirely on Bragg. People in NYC may overwhelmingly be happy to persecute prosecute Trump, but many don’t seem all that fond of having to endure subway and street crime. If he decides to prosecute, will he have to charge the (at least one black) guys who assisted Penny as accomplices?

    One amusing nonsense quote from one of the usual suspects (one of The View’s harpies?) on this incident “He was a marine, who was TRAINED TO KILL!”… as if our military has eschewed weaponry and is teaching their recruits to choke people to death.

      • It would be interesting to know if Penny had taken such courses, and the specifics of the training. Could go either way as a factor in his case ( if there is one). It still seems a reach to assume that Marines, in general, are trained to choke people to death.

        • IAW MCO 1500.54A, the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP) is “executed by all Marines throughout their careers.” The technique he used is a bog standard (since 2002) Tan Belt (entry-level) task (Rear choke) from MCO 1500.54A. According to Task & Purpose, Mr. Penny was a former Infantryman. If true, his whole reason for existence during his enlistment was to close with, engage and destroy the enemy. Kipling’s poem “Tommy” seems appropriate here. Best of luck to Mr. Penny.

          • So, question might be, do they learn the different types, which did he use, how, and what would be the expected result from that method.

            Still think it would have been “blind squirrel and acorn” territory for Sunny or Joy, or … to have known any of this.

            • Well, the task performance checklists (pass/fail) are embedded in the MCO IAW proficiency (belt) level. In addition to knowing Mr. Penny’s training level/records, you’d have to ask an instructor regarding details and proper tactics. I’m not one.

              As for Sunny or Joy…all it takes is a former Marine who is a Production Assistant, Intern, Cameraman, etc. or acquaintance who has knowledge and is in a position to put a bug in an ear.

  6. Back in the day a cub reporter for Channel 7 News in NYC named Jerry Rivers (later changed to Geraldo Rivera) did an expose on the Willobrook Hospital for the Criminally Insane highlighting the deplorable conditions therein. The State Assembly and the NYS Hospital System promptly shut Willobrook and discharged the patients to the street. They proceeded to sleep on subway grates, etc. This is what the progressives have wrought.

  7. It seems no one has ascertained how mentally deranged this Neely was. Perhaps his mental condition was determined to be not severe enough to warrant confinement, which means he knew what he’s doing.
    Perhaps this is the reason why he kept getting released. Yes, he spent time in jail for his assault on that woman, but he had a long rap sheet for numerous other offenses, such as trying to push people onto subway tracks, trying to abduct a little girl, etc.
    As it was, he had a warrant out for his arrest for another assault on an elderly woman. Constantly catching and releasing someone such as Neely only guarantees an eventual outcome of prison or the cemetery. By not doing anything the aforementioned outcomes become unavoidable. It’s only a matter of time.
    If anything, Penny is a victim of circumstance.

  8. Legal Insurrection has a post disputing the claim that Daniel had Jordan in a chokehold for 15 minutes, and has a video showing him letting up after four minutes. The trouble is the video doesn’t show when he first applied the chokehold.

    I remember a karate class where the instructor taught us how to defend against the “sleeper” hold, where the assailant around the other person’s neck from behind, with their elbow over the windpipe but not touching it. The goal is not to restrict airflow but the major blood vessels on both sides of the neck. Supposedly once caught in this hold you only have three seconds before you pass out. The instructor told us that if the assailant lets go immediately, the blood vessels will expand and the person will be fine, except with black people. Supposedly their blood vessels won’t expand in time before they expire. I don’t know if that was the hold Daniel was going for, or if what I was told about the hold is just martial arts apocrypha, but between this and George Floyd, I’m starting to think that police and civilians should not be restraining out-of-control individuals by the neck.

  9. “It is true that Penny could not have known that history when he intervened; it is also relevant information now.”

    I don’t know that this is right… There’s evidence that Neely was kind of known in the subway community – You ride the same car to and from work five days a week, 200 days a year, and you’ll probably eventually start to recognize a face or two, and the face of the lunatic getting violent, perhaps one famous for cracking the orbital bone of a 67 year old woman or trying to kidnap a 7 year old girl might be a face to remember. Penny might not have known about all 44 arrests, but I don’t think it’s impossible that he knew the guy was a violent problem.

    This case is… sad. I don’t know that this is Neely’s fault, so much as I’m pretty convinced that fault, if we have to look at it that way, doesn’t lie with Penny. Neely was failed so many different ways – When it comes to mental health, you just cannot expect people to reason themselves to sanity. For the people that are able to, that great. For the people who think the oven is their shoe rack, their pristine house is covered in bugs, that their arm is not their arm, that their 80 pound frame is too fat, or whatever psychosis brings on to Neely’s position, there needs to be people in your life that care enough to help. Where was his family? His friends? Why didn’t the justice system step in? Is there really an incarceration problem when a person with a rap sheet almost as tall as he is gets released after wrist slaps? Layers of community fabric failed to catch him, and so what? We’re going to blame the guy that was there at the end? This is like blaming the kicker who misses the 45 yard field goal in the last seconds of the game… Nothing, absolutely nothing, precluded the rest of the team from being up 40 points at that point and making that kick irrelevant. Neely had no team, and his family coming out of the woodwork now to talk about Penny… I mean, to an extent, they’re grieving, and I’ll forgive them their pain, but I have no idea why they’re being taken seriously. This is on them as much, if not more, than anyone else.

    And why are we talking about this one? There have been more than 20 homicides in New York City’s subway systems over the last three years. This is a stat I didn’t know before Neely’s death. I didn’t know about a single case. I didn’t know a single name. It’s not that there wasn’t video, everyone has a studio in their pocket. It’s not that the deaths weren’t sensational, some of those fact patterns are horrifying. This was the first, of more than 20, to exhibit the right characteristics to make the left think that they may re-create the lightning in a bottle that was the Floyd protests. Not only is the killer white. Not only is the victim black. He was a marine. There was a chokehold. It’s right in time for protest season (summer).

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