A state Supreme Court judge in New York Thursday held off on ruling on several petitions to release records from the grand jury that declined to charge the police officer whose chokehold killed Eric Garner last summer in Staten Island. The petitioners, including the NAACP's Staten Island branch, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Aid Society and Letitia James, the city’s public advocate, want transcripts of witness testimony, a listing of evidence and jury instructions from the Garner grand jury.
They argued that the state-mandated secrecy in grand jury proceedings, and especially in the Garner case, erodes public trust in the criminal justice system and inhibits the public's ability to seek particular reforms in law enforcement. The clandestine manner in which the case is being handled stands in stark contrast to the transparent handling of grand jury records in the case of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, who was shot and killed by a police officer in August. In November, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch gave a lengthy press conference following the release of hundreds of pages of records that detail the grand jury proceedings there.
The Staten Island District Attorney's Office, which empaneled the grand jury last year, countered that releasing the records would invite scrutiny of the Garner proceedings that might intimidate witnesses and potential jurors in future investigations. "You can't reform a system if you don't know what it is that went wrong" in the grand jury proceedings, an attorney for James' office said during the hearing.
Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, expressed her doubt over DA Daniel Donovan's sentiments. “It’s just a formality," she said of the day's proceedings in court. As for the District Attorney's Office, Carr seemed even more dubious of their intentions. "They seem unprepared and they were reading from papers. They are supposed to be officials,” she told International Business Times.
Judge William E. Garnett, assigned to the case in December, questioned what each petitioner intended to do with the materials should he allow their release. He did not indicate how he would rule, only saying he had not read the grand jury transcripts before Thursday's hearing. While several petitioners made comparisons to Ferguson, Garnett said that case would not have any bearing on his eventual ruling. And he did not indicate when he would decide. The group of petitioners first submitted their request to the court last month for access to grand jury transcripts and a listing of evidence.
Arthur Eisenberg, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who was in court Thursday, saw a clear difference between Garner and Ferguson. “The law in Missouri gave the DA far more latitude, but New York law is very strong on the presumption of secrecy, and is subject to narrow exceptions,” said Eisenberg. “Our principal argument is based on the fact that there is a conversation about reforming grand jury rules. That distinguishes this case from the Brown case.”
Eisenberg said there is some precedent in the city for sealing documents, even when all parties agree that they should be released. Citing the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, which erupted after a Hasidic Jewish motorcade ran over a black child, Eisenberg said the district attorney and the family of a victim both wanted to release grand jury information to the public, but the judge still didn’t find a reasonable public interest in doing so.
“In my mind, the grand jury is over," Carr said while her granddaughter, Eric Garner's daughter, Erica, nodded in agreement. "Once we get the transcripts, then what’s next? We should pursue the federal government. That’s what our focus should be,” she said in reference to her hopes for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate civil rights violations.
In December, a grand jury decided not to indict New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo for Garner's death on July 17. Pantaleo, who can be seen on video employing a chokehold despite Garner's repeated plea of “I can’t breathe,” had encountered the 43-year-old Staten Island resident during a street arrest for selling loose cigarettes. But details of the grand jury proceedings, including what evidence and arguments Donovan presented to the jurors, have remained sealed under a state law that mandates the proceedings remain secret.
New York City’s medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide caused by the chokehold. The jury's decision not to charge Pantaleo, in addition to setting off nationwide protests over police brutality against minorities, contributed to an erosion of public trust in the system, the petitioners argued.
"A substantial segment of the New York City community perceives the outcome of this grand jury process to be unfair and incompatible with video accounts of the incident that resulted in Mr. Garner's death," the NYCLU argued in its court filing. "The two interests of a 'compelling' nature that support disclosure of the grand jury transcript are, first, the need to restore public confidence in our criminal justice system and, second, the need to inform the current debate that has begun regarding the role of the grand jury as an instrument of justice or injustice."
In his filing, Donovan argued for keeping the transcripts secret, saying the demand for complete transparency is inconsistent "with the presumption of innocence, which simply means that no individual should suffer adverse consequences merely on the basis of an accusation, unless the charges were ultimately sustained in a court of law." Donovan also warned that releasing the records would endanger the jurors and the witnesses, even though petitioners agreed that their identities should be withheld.
The grand jury empaneled for the Garner case sat for nine weeks, heard from 50 witnesses, and viewed 60 exhibits of evidence, including four videos, according to Donovan's court filing. The U.S. Department of Justice has promised a civil rights investigation into the case, tasking the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of New York with the matter. That office's top prosecutor, Loretta Lynch, is now President Barack Obama's nominee for attorney general.