A grand jury in the US has cleared a white police officer in the videotaped chokehold death of an unarmed black man who had been stopped on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, a lawyer for the victim's family said.

The decision on Wednesday in Staten Island, New York City not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo threatened to add to the tensions that have simmered in the city since the July 17 death of Eric Garner - a case that sparked outrage and drew comparisons to the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Missouri.

As with Brown's death in the St Louis suburb of Ferguson, the Garner case sparked protests, accusations of racist policing and calls for federal prosecutors to intervene.

Jonathon Moore, an attorney for the victim's family, said he was told of the grand jury's decision.

"I am actually astonished based on the evidence of the video tape, and the medical examiner, that this grand jury at this time wouldn't indict for anything, is really just astonishing," Moore said.

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The decision comes just a week after a St Louis area grand jury decided not to indict the white police officer who shot Brown, which prompted violent protests.

Unlike the Missouri protests, demonstrations in New York have remained mostly peaceful. The case also prompted Police Commissioner William Bratton to order officers at the largest US police department to undergo retraining on use of force.

'I can't breathe'

The grand jury could have considered a range of charges, from a murder charge to a lesser offence like reckless endangerment.

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A video shot by an onlooker and widely viewed on the Internet showed the 43-year-old Garner telling a group of police officers to leave him alone as they tried to arrest him.

Pantaleo responded by wrapping his arm around Garner's neck in an apparent chokehold, which is banned under NYPD policy. The heavyset Garner, who had asthma, was heard repeatedly gasping, "I can't breathe!''

A second video surfaced that showed police and paramedics appearing to make no effort to revive Garner while he lay motionless on the ground.

He later died at a hospital.

The medical examiner ruled Garner's death a homicide and found that a chokehold contributed to it. A forensic pathologist hired by Garner's family, Dr Michael Baden, agreed with those findings, saying there was hemorrhaging on Garner's neck indicative of neck compressions.

Police union officials and Pantaleo's lawyer have argued that the officer used a takedown move taught by the police department, not a chokehold, because he was resisting arrest and that Garner's poor health was the main reason he died.

Source: Agencies