Judge Refuses to Release Grand Jury Documents in Eric Garner Chokehold Death

A state judge has refused to release secret grand jury testimony concerning the police chokehold death of Eric Garner despite arguments from civil liberties lawyers who had said the public needs to reconcile a video of the arrest with the decision not to indict the officer involved.

State Supreme Court Justice William Garnett said Thursday the parties who brought the suit didn't make a good enough argument for releasing the minutes. His decision comes a little more than a month after lawyers for the New York Civil Liberties Union had asked him to release the documents in the interest of transparency.

"What would they use the minutes for?" Garnett wrote in his opinion. "The only answer which the court heard was the possibility of effecting legislative change… which does not satisfy the requirements of the law."

"If every newsworthy case were deemed compelling and, thus justified disclosure, the veil of grand jury secrecy would be lifted and every citizen’s right to have fellow citizens, sitting on a grand jury, check the power of the police and the prosecutor without pressure from outside influences -- real or perceived -- would be imperiled,” the opinion continued.

Documentation of the grand jury proceedings has been kept secret since the jury declined in December to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo in the July death of the 43-year-old Staten Island man after hearing evidence for months.

In his opinion, Garnett wrote that the petitioners failed to establish the "compelling and particularized need" required to unseal secret grand jury documents. A "compelling interest" in a case is not a "compelling or particularized need," he wrote.

Garner died July 17 after being put in what the medical examiner ruled a fatal chokehold during an arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes. His death, not long after the deadly police shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, prompted protests across the city and nation. The Ferguson officer who shot Brown was also later cleared by a grand jury.

Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan, a Republican who has announced he will seek the congressional seat vacated by Michael Grimm, who pleaded guilty to tax fraud, had opposed the release of the grand jury proceedings. Donovan argued in court papers that grand jury witnesses came forward and testified "with full assurances of secrecy." Making their testimony public, the papers argued, would bring an "inevitable result of harassment or retaliation."

The Staten Island prosecutor's papers questioned a Ferguson prosecutor's decision to release the grand jury documents in the Brown case, arguing that even though the names of witnesses were blacked out, news outlets compromised their anonymity by seeking "to analyze the transcripts with an eye toward criticizing the witnesses in a manner that would be obvious to at least the witnesses themselves as well as those familiar with the involvement in the case."

Such disclosure would "almost certainly have a chilling effect on the very type of witness cooperation that is most desired and the most difficult to obtain," the papers add.

In a statement Thursday, Donovan said, "We respect and will adhere to Judge Garnett's well-reasoned decision." 

Aside from the NYCLU, the Legal Aid Society, Public Advocate Letitia James, the New York Post and local branches of the NAACP had also petitioned for the release of the Garner documents.  

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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