Penny, who had internalized the message of late civil rights activist Eli 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, said that he carried the lesson that good people did nothing with him to this day.
Penny dragged Jordan Neely, 30, to the floor of a northbound F train on May 21, putting him in a chokehold caught on cellphone video. Neely ended up dead. Despite a five- to 15-year prison term looming over him, Penny said he does not regret the decision that has turned his life upside down in ways he could never have imagined.
Penny grew up with three sisters in a working-class neighborhood on the South Shore of Long Island, New York. After their parents split up when he was 11, their grandparents raised the kids. Penny became an avid surfer and swimmer — pastimes that remain part of his weekly routine. The 9/11 terror attacks had left an indelible impact on his community.
"It was a very patriotic time," he said. "A lot of my friends' parents were first responders, law enforcement, and a lot of them responded to the Twin Towers." After seeing an ad on TV, he joined the service. "They were going out and helping the world, and I wanted to be a part of that," he said.
Penny, who spoke with Fox News Digital from his lawyers' office via Zoom, wore a black suit and blue button-down shirt as he came across as timid and at ease as his case continues to draw intense scrutiny. 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 opens your eyes to new perspectives," he said. On his return to the U.S., he went on a road trip through Mexico and Central America. When he returned to New York, he moved in with his sister and, like many 20-somethings, was "trying to figure things out," he said. He then worked as a barback, bussing dishes and stocking inventory, and taught swim lessons. Last winter, he enrolled in a local college to study architecture.
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.
"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 saw older women and children, who were terrified." Penny would not detail what happened next, but a witness previously described the scene to Fox News Digital.
"It was self-defense, and I believe in my heart that he saved a lot of people that day," said the retiree, who described herself as a woman of color. 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."
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." Police met the train at the Broadway-Lafayette station and found Neely's motionless body. The ex-Marine accompanied police back to the precinct to give his account.
Steven Raiser of the Raiser & Kenniff law firm said his client made the right decision, not the easy one. "Danny could have gone 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 sitting in the middle of the train that [Neely] was screaming at." Penny said that he empathizes with Neely's family, who believes 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." The family has filed a wrongful death suit against him. Neely's mother was strangled by her boyfriend in 2007 and found stuffed in a suitcase in the Bronx. The traumatized teen became a Michael Jackson impersonator and was admired for his dance moves.
However, his mental health deteriorated over time, and he cycled in and out of hospitals and jails for most of his adult life. 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 is Black.
"The majority of the people on that train that I was protecting were minorities, so it hurts a lot to be called that," Penny said. "It has taken a toll." Celebrity civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton gave a eulogy at Neely's funeral, blasting the decision not to arrest Penny on the spot. "Who thought it was alright for this man to choke a brother to death and go home to see his family?" Sharpton asked.
The city medical examiner ruled Neely's death a homicide caused by neck compression. Eleven days after Neely died, Penny was charged with one count of second-degree manslaughter. The usually private student surrendered to the NYPD and was carried in handcuffs to a car and driven to the courthouse as more than 50 reporters, photographers, and videographers shouted questions and snapped his picture.
At Penny's arraignment, Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass said that Penny had continued to hold Neely after he had stopped moving. Now free on $100,000 bond as his case proceeds, Penny called his arrest and perp walk challenging. "It was a little bit humiliating, 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 that Penny put Neely in a recovery position. At the same time, he waited for the police to arrive and could not have predicted the dire outcome.
Raiser said that Penny's life is in a holding pattern until his criminal case is resolved, which could take years. "You just don't go on like nothing happened. It's a completely traumatic upturning of your life," Raiser added. Penny said he is profoundly grateful and relieved that he does not have to worry about paying 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."