But in the lead-up to the Manhattan district attorney’s office charging him with second-degree manslaughter, Penny has found a groundswell of financial and online support from high-profile Republicans such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Fox News personalities and conservatives on Elon Musk’s Twitter. Many of them have rallied around Penny and hailed the veteran as a “hero” and “good Samaritan.”
“We stand with Good Samaritans like Daniel Penny,” DeSantis tweeted Friday night. “Let’s show this Marine … America’s got his back.”
“The Marine who stepped in to protect others is a hero,” tweeted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).
A legal-defense fund set up by Penny’s attorneys on a crowdfunding site that’s hosted fundraisers for Jan. 6, 2021, defendants and Kyle Rittenhouse had raised more than $1 million as of Saturday afternoon. Most of the money has come from anonymous donors thanking him for what he did and agreeing with his lawyers’ statement that Penny never intended to harm Neely, 30.
The right-wing response suggests that conservative lawmakers and pundits could make Penny into the latest Republican talking point in a story that’s going to last for months.
In the process, conservatives and right-leaning media outlets have described Neely — a Black homeless man who authorities say was described by witnesses as acting in a “hostile and erratic manner” — as “unhinged” and with “a long history of violent crime.” The political right has seized on police saying Neely had 44 previous arrests for offenses such as assault, disorderly conduct and fare evasion. (Authorities have not confirmed Neely’s record for The Washington Post.) Fox News host Greg Gutfeld said the manslaughter charge was “pro-criminal” and “anti-hero.”
Greene went one step further.
“Jordan Neely was a violent criminal who should have been behind bars,” she wrote on Twitter this week. Her tweet was liked by Musk, who also liked a Twitter poll from another user asking, “Did Jordan Neely deserve what happened to him?” (More than two-thirds of those who voted in the poll said, “Yes, he had it coming.”)
The political right’s embrace of Penny — whose New York voter registration in 2016 listed his party affiliation as “conservative” — is an attempt to take the legal case against him out of the courtroom and onto television, social media and fundraisers, experts told The Washington Post.
“Penny’s case has been injected into the bloodstream of partisan politics,” said Matt Dallek, a professor of political management at George Washington University. “A lot of conservatives can point to vigilantes like him and say, ‘They’re standing between us and the mob.’ It fits into a political narrative, and people like Penny are appropriated, whether they want to be or not.”
Steven M. Raiser, one of Penny’s attorneys, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday regarding the right-wing support his client has received.
Penny, of Long Island, was arraigned Friday on a charge of second-degree manslaughter and was released on a $100,000 cash bond. His next court appearance is scheduled for July 17. If convicted, Penny could face five to 15 years in prison.
“Jordan Neely should still be alive today, and my thoughts continue to be with his family and loved ones as they mourn his loss during this extremely painful time,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) said in a statement.
The Neely family’s attorneys said they are seeking a grand jury indictment, telling reporters that Penny “didn’t care about Jordan” when he placed him in the fatal chokehold. Penny’s attorneys have argued that their client acted in self-defense and “could not have foreseen [Neely’s] untimely death.”
The conservative response to Penny’s actions has drawn comparisons to Rittenhouse, who was acquitted on all charges after killing two people and wounding a third during unrest related to a police shooting in Kenosha, Wis., in 2020, said Jon Marshall, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism who has studied the relationship between presidents and the press. Rittenhouse has been championed by conservatives, with Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk and others calling him a “hero.”
“What we’re seeing now for Daniel Penny after he killed Jordan Neely is that he fits within a long, ugly history of some media and politicians glorifying vigilante violence,” Marshall said. “There’s a history of the ‘us vs them’ narrative, and the ‘us’ is besieged and under great threat, and that’s what justifies these acts of great violence.”
Experts say it’s a narrative among conservatives that’s helped fuel the online fundraiser for Penny’s legal defense fund to raise about $1.1 million as of Saturday. Penny’s attorneys set up the fundraiser on GiveSendGo, a Christian crowdfunding site created after the site GoFundMe removed far-right campaigns that went against its terms of service. GiveSendGo has hosted campaigns for Rittenhouse, defendants of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol and the “Freedom Convoy” — a group of truckers in Ottawa in 2022 that protested a rule requiring cross-border drivers to be fully vaccinated to enter their respective countries.
When Penny was charged with manslaughter on Friday, the campaign raised about $600,000 on that day alone, Jacob Wells, the CEO and co-founder of GiveSendGo, told The Post. Donors are giving an average of about $700 per minute to the fundraiser, he added. Rittenhouse’s campaign raised about $630,000 between August and November 2020, Wells said, and the convoy campaign’s record campaign raised nearly $10 million.
Penny’s $1 million crowdfunding campaign is already among the highest totals in the history of GiveSendGo.
“Daniel Penny and his legal team came to GiveSendGo first because they know, as a platform, we stand for people’s right to a fair and due trial,” Wells said. “I think it’s appropriate in this moment in time when social media is amplifying people’s voices significantly, it’s all the more reason why defendants need access to a rigorous defense and funds to afford that rigorous defense.”
At least 20 donors had given $1,000 or more to Penny’s GiveSendGo campaign as of Saturday afternoon.
“Thank you for protecting the citizens that day,” wrote an anonymous donor who gave $10,000, the largest single donation.
Another anonymous high-dollar donor wrote that Penny “had the bravery to stand up and do the right thing” before mentioning, referencing Neely’s death: “No tears for the [man] who died.”
The financial support Penny’s legal team has received is due, in part, to the coverage of right-leaning media outlets and Republican politicians using his case to score points in the latest culture war, experts say.
The beginning of the conservative media response to Neely’s death and Penny, whose name was not immediately known to the public, came when the New York Post described the 30-year-old Neely as “unhinged” in its first story on the May 1 killing. It continued during Sean Hannity’s show on May 4, when the Fox News host described Neely as “a mentally ill homeless guy with a long history of violent crime.” After saying the Marine Corps veteran had “subdued” Neely, a member of Hannity’s audience exclaimed, “Woo!”
When police said the 24-year-old White man was initially taken in for questioning and released without charges, protesters filled the subway system and demanded that the man who killed Neely be arrested. Kayleigh McEnany, a White House press secretary in the Trump administration who is now a Fox News host, scoffed at the protesters’ chants for justice, saying on May 5, “Well, at least they have rhythm.” Her co-hosts laughed off-screen.
Other conservative outlets such as One America News have had segments asking whether Penny “should be prosecuted or honored?” The Wall Street Journal’s generally conservative editorial board made the case against charging Penny, describing him in a Friday headline as “the Subway Samaritan.” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) gave Penny a similar nickname — “Subway Superman” — on former president Donald Trump’s Truth Social platform.
Marshall, the Northwestern professor, noted that Penny’s case pointed to a history in which U.S. politicians have used crime and fear of crime to their own advantage, capitalizing on moments of division to strike a chord with their bases. Experts cited Trump as a recent example. They also emphasized how DeSantis, who is expected to seek the 2024 Republican nomination for president, was a prime example of this practice when he tweeted his support of Penny, saying the country must “take back the streets for law-abiding citizens.”
“Politicians speak about them and promote them long before the cases go to trial,” Marshall said. “In a prior generation, it would have taken weeks to build up to this point. Now, it can build up to this point in a matter of minutes, and people can jump to conclusions quickly and can make assumptions before the facts are known.”
On Twitter, Musk’s pay-to-verify program has boosted the reach of conservative and far-right voices, which have called for Penny to be given a medal, saying the manslaughter charge amounted to “a travesty.” Musk has called protests of Neely’s killing “disingenuous,” and he liked a tweet calling Neely “worthless.”
Why didn’t they protest when the children were murdered at the Christian school?
They are disingenuous.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 7, 2023
Experts agree that the emotions surrounding his case will fester into the summer. Penny’s support from conservatives has given him seven figures in donations for his legal fund but has also made him a name that pundits and Republican lawmakers are talking about on social media and TV.
“It’s a drumbeat that has begun,” Dallek said. “The dynamic that suggests that Penny is a victim of some sort of injustice and being unfairly persecuted, those cries will only grow in volume.”