How The Media Made A Villain Out Of Jordan Neely

Jordan Neely, 30, died on May 1 after being put in a fatal chokehold on the New York City subway by Daniel Penny.
Jordan Neely, 30, died on May 1 after being put in a fatal chokehold on the New York City subway by Daniel Penny.

Jordan Neely, 30, died on May 1 after being put in a fatal chokehold on the New York City subway by Daniel Penny.

After Daniel Penny killed Jordan Neely with a chokehold on May 1, several local media outlets reported that Neely had thrown trash at subway passengers, aggressively threatened them and got into an argument with Penny before Penny tackled him to the ground.

But within a few days, as reporting relied less on anonymous law enforcement sources, journalists began poking holes in each of these details, and outright contradicted some of them.

By that time, though, the two men involved in the incident had been painted with broad brushes. Penny, a 24-year-old white man, was written not as someone who’d used a deadly martial arts position for several minutes straight, but rather as a Marine veteran looking for work as a bartender in New York. Neely, on the other hand, was a Black, homeless, mentally ill former Michael Jackson impersonator ― an “unhinged” “vagrant,” as the New York Post described him ― whose killing recalled an era “when residents felt besieged by crime,” as The Associated Press put it.

Even after the city’s medical examiner found that Neely, 30, died of a fatal chokehold, some outlets used passive, soft language and invited debate. A since-deleted tweet from the AP read: “The choking death of a man with apparent mental illness in the New York subway set off powerful reactions, with some calling the chokehold a homicide and others defending the passenger’s action as a defense against disorder.”

For several days, media reports withheld Penny’s name while printing Neely’s police record.

That record included dozens of arrests, some for assault and many for lesser charges like fare evasion. And police sources appeared to immediately leak Neely’s rap sheet to news outlets after his death, despite Neely having just been killed in public. The practice of leaking criminal records to reporters after a public incident is a habit for the NYPD, deployed after the arrests of countless defendants ― but not usually for homicide victims. A spokesperson for the department didn’t respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.

As Penny surrendered to authorities Friday on a manslaughter charge, pleading not guilty, the city’s media apparatus faced an urgent question: How had the victim of a killing so quickly been made into the villain?

People gather to attend a May 8 vigil to honor Neely's life.
People gather to attend a May 8 vigil to honor Neely's life.

People gather to attend a May 8 vigil to honor Neely's life.

Jordan Neely’s Last Words

Neely’s final minutes began with a scene many New Yorkers have encountered: a man in mental distress, hungry and tired, shouting for help on the subway.

According to Juan Alberto Vázquez, a freelance journalist who took the only published video of Penny putting Neely in a chokehold, Neely was “aggressive” but not specifically threatening or getting physical with anyone on the train.

Vázquez, who did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment, posted a video of Neely’s final moments on his Facebook page, along with a quote purportedly from Neely written in Spanish: “I don’t have food, I don’t have anything to drink, I’m fed up....I don’t care if I go to jail and they give me life in prison.” Neely didn’t seem to want to attack anyone, Vázquez wrote.

“He started screaming all these things, took off his jacket, a black jacket that he had, and threw it on the ground,” Vázquez told the New York Post for a story published May 2, the day after Neely’s death. He also told The New York Times that day that Neely had said, “I’m ready to die.”

Three days later, Vázquez told a nearly identical story to New York magazine: “He started yelling that he didn’t have food, that he didn’t have water. From what I understood, he was yelling that he was tired, that he didn’t care about going to jail.” Then Vázquez went further, emphasizing the relative lack of risk Neely posed at the moment Penny attacked him: “You ask how many people out of 100 would have dared to do something like that, and I think that 98 will say: ‘No, I would wait to see one more sign that indicates aggression.’”

But Neely’s purported words grew more aggressive with the use of anonymous police sources. The NewYork Post, the Daily News, ABC7 and Fox News, all citing law enforcement, said Neely had threatened subway riders.

On television, NBC New York’s Checkey Beckford cited anonymous law enforcement sources who claimed, “according to a witness,” that Neely shouted “I’m not taking no for an answer” and “I’ll hurt anyone on this train” ― quotes that have not been widely matched by other outlets. (Fox News’ Jesse Watters used the same quotes during his May 4 broadcast, without citing his source, and The New Yorker, also unsourced, included the quote “I’m not taking no for an answer!” in a May 10 story.) Two early articles on NBC New York’s digital platform, published on May 3 and May 4, paraphrased the dialogue: “Police sources told NBC New York that Neely told riders on the train that he wanted food, that he wasn’t taking no for an answer, and that he would hurt anyone on the train.” Two subsequentarticles added a crucial word, reporting on what Neely “purportedly” told riders, according to police sources.

A spokesperson for WNBC told HuffPost, “We stand by our story and our reporting.”

Over the past few years, and especially since the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, the media has grown more circumspect about basing stories on law enforcement sources alone. But change has been slow.

“Journalism supposedly is based on skepticism,” said Linn Washington Jr., a journalism professor at Temple University with decades of experience reporting on police. “You take everything with a grain of salt, and you do your balanced reporting in as accurate and as fair a way as is possible to both sides. Has this been a sea change? No. But there has been some changes. And the changes are substantial. But then, you get these circumstances where the initial reportage can overshadow some of the underlying facts.” 

Even as some outlets cited anonymous law enforcement officers to report Neely supposedly threatening straphangers, others reported nearly the opposite. 

On May 4, an unidentified witness, speaking to CBS News, said that while Neely had been panhandling and shouting, “It did not appear that this man, who seemed to be suffering from some kind of mental disturbance, was seeking to assault anyone.”

One witness told Hell Gate, a worker-owned New York City outlet, that he hadn’t seen the beginning of the incident, but he described what he heard secondhand as a demand for help from Neely, not necessarily a threat. “[Bystanders] said [Neely] had gotten on the train and was belligerent about getting his food,” James Kings told the outlet. “He was using the wrong method, he was using aggressive panhandling, he was screaming and hollering about how he needed food.” (Hell Gate also published the account of an anonymous witness who said they’d heard secondhand from other riders that Neely had been threatening people.)

Penny’s attorneys have said he merely protected himself and others after Neely “began aggressively threatening Daniel Penny and the other passengers.” But few of Penny’s fellow passengers have come forward saying the same.

On Friday ― more than 10 days after the incident — the Post published the account of an unidentified 66-year-old who claimed Neely had said, “I would kill a motherf***er. I don’t care. I’ll take a bullet. I’ll go to jail.” The woman said Penny had asked her and another rider to give their accounts to authorities. Penny, the source said, “did not engage with the gentleman. He said not a word. It was all Mr. Neely that was... threatening the passengers.”

Now, the case is in prosecutors’ hands. The Manhattan district attorney’s office is fielding criticism from all sides ― on the right, for bringing a case at all against a supposed “Good Samaritan” acting in self-defense, and from Neely’s family, for not pursuing a murder charge.

Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass said Friday in court that “several witnesses observed Mr. Neely making threats and scaring passengers” before Penny put him in a fatal chokehold. The DA’s office didn’t answer HuffPost’s questions about those witness accounts.

Speaking in court on Friday, Steinglass focused on Penny’s actions once his minutes-long chokehold began. 

“At some point Mr. Neely stopped moving,” Steinglass said. “The defendant continued to hold Mr. Neely for a period and then released him.” 

Penny is escorted in handcuffs by New York police after turning himself in to the 5th Precinct in Lower Manhattan. Penny turned himself in after being charged with second-degree manslaughter in the chokehold death of Jordan Neely.
Penny is escorted in handcuffs by New York police after turning himself in to the 5th Precinct in Lower Manhattan. Penny turned himself in after being charged with second-degree manslaughter in the chokehold death of Jordan Neely.

Penny is escorted in handcuffs by New York police after turning himself in to the 5th Precinct in Lower Manhattan. Penny turned himself in after being charged with second-degree manslaughter in the chokehold death of Jordan Neely.

Shaping A Victim’s Story

Accounts of an alleged argument before Penny took Neely’s life are similarly shaky.

No witnesses have described any interaction between the two men before Penny choked Neely, and there’s no video footage of the moments leading up to the chokehold.

Vázquez told New York magazine that Penny “came up behind [Neely] and grabbed him by the neck.” CNN similarly reported that, according to Vázquez, “Neely did not interact with the passenger at all before the attack.” Vázquez told The New York Times that he didn’t directly see Penny grab Neely, but that he heard a thump and saw both men on the floor. Lawyers for Neely’s family similarly claimed to the Times that they’d been told by witnesses that Penny grabbed Neely from behind. The Post, citing both Vázquez and police, reported that Neely “approached the homeless man from behind and took him to the ground with a chokehold.”

Multiple reports citing both witnesses and police ― from The Associated Press and The New York Times to CNN and NBC New York ― have said there’s no evidence that Neely got physical with anyone before Penny began his chokehold.

Still, some outlets described the incident in a way that implied a two-sided struggle.

In a May 2 story, the Daily News wrote: “A disturbed man threatening strangers on a Manhattan subway train died after getting into a brawl with the wrong passenger — a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who put him in a chokehold, cops said Tuesday.” According to that report, Neely threw garbage at commuters, prompting an “argument” with Penny ― a “quarrel” that “turned into a brawl as the train entered the station.”

Here, too, police sources may have shaped the narrative. In a May 3 story, NBC News quoted a phone call with a police spokesperson who said officers came to the subway station to respond to a call about a physical fight.

“Further investigation revealed the 30-year-old was involved in a verbal dispute with the 24-year-old male and it escalated into a physical altercation,” the spokesperson said, according to the story. “During the physical struggle between the two males, the 30-year-old male lost consciousness.”

Fox News’ Watters went even further on May 4, saying, without explaining the source of his information, that Penny confronted Neely “gently at first” and that Penny “tried to deescalate” ― two claims that haven’t appeared in any other outlet.

“FOX News Channel stands by our coverage and does not disclose sources,” a spokesperson said.

The criminal complaint against Penny cites an unnamed person who “observed the defendant come up from behind an individual, later identified as Jordan Neely, pull him down to the ground, and further observed the defendant hold his arm around Mr. Neely’s neck for several minutes.”

The claims about Neely throwing garbage at passengers ― rather than simply throwing his jacket on the ground ― have similarly not been established, outside of reports within a couple days of Neely’s death from the Daily News, the Post, and CBS New York, the last of which cited unnamed witnesses.

And one detail seems to have disappeared from the story: Screenshotsindicate that an ABC7 article originally included the text, “Importantly, detectives so far have no information suggesting that the veteran who administered the hold had been warned by onlookers that Neely was dying or suffering serious physical damage while being restrained.”

However, that phrase no longer appears on ABC7’s website. Perhaps relatedly, Vázquez’s video includes remarks from an onlooker on the subway several minutes into Penny’s chokehold. “You’re going to kill him now,” the man says. And later: “You don’t want to catch a murder charge.”

Mari Hayman and Dirce Toca contributed reporting.