By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York judge will hear arguments later this month whether to publicly release the records of a grand jury hearing in the case of an unarmed black man killed after a policeman put him in a chokehold while arresting him for peddling loose cigarettes.
After an unusually lengthy session lasting nine weeks, the grand jury voted in December not to indict the police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, for his role in the asphyxiation death of Eric Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk last summer.
Captured on video, Garner's repeated cries of "I can't breathe!" as Pantaleo holds him by his neck have become a slogan for protesters at rallies across the United States who accuse police forces of being hostile towards black citizens.
The groups asking for the records to be made public say they are expecting a tough legal battle in a case that has drawn the attention of U.S. President Barack Obama and his Justice Department. But, they say, it is important to show how the grand jury came to its conclusion, and possibly expose flaws in the secrecy-shrouded, prosecuter-led system.
"We are all concerned about the failure of a secret process to provide any vehicle for accountability in the case of Eric Garner," Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in an interview.
The NYCLU, the city's public advocate, the Legal Aid Society and the New York Post have each filed petitions in State Supreme Court in Staten Island arguing that an exception should be made to the presumption of secrecy in the Garner case.
The United States is one of few countries to still use grand juries to indict someone with a crime. The practice has come under renewed scrutiny with the cases of Garner and of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager killed by a white police officer last August in Ferguson, Missouri.
In the Brown case, a St. Louis County grand jury voted in November not to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, for killing Brown. In both cases, protesters and some elected officials were angered that there would be no public trials, sparking a new wave of street rallies in recent weeks.
In the case in Ferguson, the county prosecutor decided to publicly release most of the transcripts and evidence from the grand jury hearing.
Daniel Donovan, Jr., the district attorney who handled the Garner case and the respondent in all four petitions, is opposing the unsealing of the Garner case, saying the petitioners do not have the right to make the request.
"While the public's thirst for information relating to this matter is both palpable and understandable," his lawyers wrote in court documents filed Friday, "satisfying that thirst" by reneging on a promise of secrecy to witnesses would impair future grand juries.
At a brief hearing on Monday, Judge William Garnett said he would hear arguments from lawyers from both sides on Jan. 29.
"At least we'll have some transparency," Gwen Carr, Garner's mother, said after attending the hearing.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Andrew Hay and Chris Reese)