EXCLUSIVE DETAILS: As Marine veteran Daniel Penny watched an erratic homeless man allegedly threaten to murder terrified passengers on a New York City subway — including women and children — he said he felt a moral obligation to act.
Years earlier, he had internalized the message of human rights activist Elie Wiesel, who spoke to his high school class about the Holocaust after the students read “Night,” the author’s autobiographical account of Nazi death camps.
“One of the overall messages that he talked about was that good people did nothing,” Penny told Fox News Digital. “It’s a lesson that I carry with me to this day.”
Penny, 24, dragged Jordan Neely, 30, to the floor of a northbound F train on May 21, and put him in a chokehold that was caught on cellphone video. Neely ended up dead.
Drawn to military
Penny grew up in a working-class neighborhood on the South Shore of Long Island, New York, with three sisters.
After their parents split up when he was 11, the kids were raised by their grandparents. Penny became an avid surfer and swimmer — pastimes that remain part of his weekly routine.
Daniel Penny is charged with second-degree manslaughter for the subway chokehold death of Jordan Neely. He grew up on the South Shores of Long Island, New York, and is an avid surfer. (Courtesy of Daniel Penny)
The 9/11 terror attacks had left an indelible impact on his community.
Attorney Steven Raiser, left, and Daniel Penny pose for a photo outside the Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building in Mineola, New York, on Tuesday. (Julia Bonavita/Fox News Digital)
As an infantry squad leader and an instructor in water survival, he was deployed twice from 2017 to 2021. He toured Spain, Greece, Jordan, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Japan.
“It was an awesome experience seeing parts of the world the majority of people don’t get to see, and it really opens your eyes to new perspectives,” he said.
Fatal subway encounter
However, his life changed dramatically when he boarded an F train and headed to his gym on West 23rd Street to swim laps on May 21.
Neely, who suffered from mental illness and had a long history of violent attacks on subway riders, stormed onto the train at the Second Avenue station in Manhattan at about 2:30 p.m., screaming and threatening passengers.
Screenshot from bystander video showing Jordan Neely being held in a chokehold on the New York City subway. (Luces de Nueva York/Juan Alberto Vazquez via Storyful)
“Between stops, you’re trapped on the train, and there’s nowhere to go. You can try to move away, but you can only do so much on a packed car,” Penny recalled. “I was scared. I looked around, and I saw older women and children, and they were terrified.”
She recalled Neely ranting, “I don’t care if I have to kill an F, I will. I’ll go to jail, I’ll take a bullet.”
Marine veteran Daniel Penny, right, fatally choked Jordan Neely, left, on a NYC subway after the homeless man threatened passengers. (Mills & Edwards/ AllTrails)
Penny approached Neely from behind, wrapped his arm around his neck and dragged him to the floor, as two other men helped restrain him until he went limp.
Cellphone footage only captured about four minutes of the encounter after Neely was already on the floor, but one passenger can be heard telling Penny, “You’re going to kill him.”
“Danny could have went to the corner of the train and waited for Neely to come to him,” he said. “But it might have been too late for the little girl that was sitting in the middle of the train that [Neely] was screaming at.”
New York police officers administer CPR to Jordan Neely at the scene where a fight was reported on a subway train in New York on May 1, 2023. (Paul Martinka via AP)
Penny said that he empathizes with Neely’s family, who has said they believe he should be charged with murder.
“They’ve been in my prayers. I feel for their loss,” he told Fox News Digital. “Like Jordan, they’re also victims of a failed system.”
However, his mental health deteriorated over time, and he cycled in and out of hospitals and jails for most of his adult life.
Jordan Neely doing a Michael Jackson impersonation in front of Regal Cinemas in New York’s Times Square on Oct. 27, 2009. (Andrew Savulich/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
He had been arrested more than 40 times, including for numerous violent assaults on strangers in the subway, and was on the city’s “Top 50” list of homeless people most in need of outreach, the New York Post reported.
Neely’s death spurred widespread protests across the city with many demonstrators and even politicians calling Penny a “murderer” and a racist. Penny is White; Neely was Black.
The city medical examiner ruled Neely’s death a homicide caused by compression of the neck.
Eleven days after Neely died, Penny was charged with one count of second-degree manslaughter.
“It was a little bit humiliating I would say but, I mean, it is what it is. That’s how things are playing out,” he told Fox News Digital.
Defense lawyers Raiser and Thomas Kenniff have said Penny put Neely in a recovery position while he waited for police to arrive and could not have predicted the dire outcome.
Penny said he is deeply grateful and relieved that he does not have to worry about paying for his legal fees after a GiveSendGo campaign raised nearly $3 million. It is the crowdfunding site’s second-most successful campaign in its history.
“I was working two jobs as a student,” Penny said. “My family doesn’t come from money, so I’m incredibly thankful for this fund and all the people who have supported me.”