On the ground with Eric Garner protesters
“Transparency is better than secrecy. Light is better than darkness,” said Arthur Eisenberg, legal director of the NYCLU.
In court papers, the NYCLU cited the outcry over the grand jury’s decision not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo — who was captured on video putting Garner in what the medical examiner called a fatal chokehold — as a compelling reason to make an exception to the long-standing practice of keeping the process secret.
Disclosure is needed “to restore public confidence in our criminal justice system and to inform the current debate that has begun regarding the role of the grand jury as an instrument of justice or injustice,” the NYCLU argued in court papers.
In its reply, Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan’s office argued that grand jury witnesses came forward and testified “with full assurances of secrecy.” Making their testimony public, the D.A. argued, would bring an “inevitable result of harassment or retaliation.”
Pantaleo and other NYPD officers stopped Garner on a Staten Island street July 17 on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. A video shot by an onlooker shows the 43-year-old father of six telling the officers to leave him alone and refusing to be handcuffed.
Another Eric Garner video raises new questions
Pantaleo responded by wrapping his arm around Garner’s neck. The heavyset Garner, who had asthma, is heard on the tape gasping, “I can’t breathe.” He later was pronounced dead at a hospital.
The New York City Medical Examiner’s officeruled Garner’s death a homicide, caused by the officer’s apparent chokehold as well as chest and neck compressions and prone positioning “during physical restraint by police.”
Police union officials and Pantaleo’s lawyer have said the cop used an authorized takedown move, not a chokehold — which is banned under NYPD policy — and that Garner’s poor health was a main cause of his death.
In December, the grand jury’s decision not to indict Pantaleo set off nationwide protests and triggered immediate calls for the grand jury records to be unsealed.
“My family really wants to know what was said and presented in that courtroom,” Eric Garner’s daughter, Erica, told reporters Thursday. Garner’s family has filed a $75 million civil rights claim against the city of New York.
How police officers feel during a violent protest
The NYCLU and others have asked the court to order Donovan to release the grand jury transcript, including the testimony of Pantaleo and dozens of other witnesses, detailed descriptions of evidence and other documentation.
A similar step was voluntarily taken by the prosecutor in Ferguson, Missouri, when a grand jury there refused to indict an officer in the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.
The Staten Island prosecutor’s court filing questioned the decision in Missouri, 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 added.
Donovan also said it’s a violation of state law, and during Thursday’s hearing the judge confirmed that, saying the secrecy of a grand jury proceeding is protected by the New York Constitution and it would take an amendment to change that, CBS New York reported.
Aside from the NYCLU, the other petitioners are the Legal Aid Society, New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, the New York Post and local branches of the NAACP.
“There were 50 witnesses presented. Were they all police officers?” James said. “Who were the experts that presented the evidence to the grand jury? Who interpreted the law?”
The judge said he would issue a written ruling at a later date.