Lawyers urge judge to lift grand jury secrecy in New York chokehold case

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 05, 2015 5:37 PM

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lawyers for civil liberty groups, the news media, public defenders and New York's elected public advocate urged a judge on Thursday to release the transcripts of secret grand jury proceedings into the killing of an unarmed black man last July by a white police officer who put him in a chokehold.

The lawyers told state Supreme Court Judge William Garnett that making the transcripts public would shed light on why the grand jury declined to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner.

Garner's death and the fatal shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old black man in Ferguson, Missouri, last August by a white police officer sparked protests around the country by people outraged by police treatment of African Americans.

"It's really, truly unique - this case has clearly become the catalyst for widespread discussion of reform," said Matthew Brinckerhoff on behalf of the city's public advocate, Letitia James. "You can't reform a system if you don't know what went wrong with it."

Lawyers representing Daniel Donovan Jr., the Staten Island district attorney who presided over the Garner grand jury proceedings, argued against the release. Future witnesses and grand jurors in high-profile cases might be intimidated at the thought of public scrutiny, they told the judge.

The hearing in New York City's borough of Staten Island was held just a few minutes' walk from the stretch of sidewalk where Garner died after Officer Daniel Pantaleo put him into a chokehold to arrest him on suspicion of illegally selling loose cigarettes.

Few deaths have been more scrutinized in recent years than Garner's, the lawyers seeking the release of the transcripts argued, conceding that their request to lift the legal veil of secrecy surrounding grand jury deliberations was exceptional.

It might be better, the judge said, for the lawyers to get New York's constitution amended so it no longer mandated grand jury secrecy.

The judge asked the lawyers what they hoped to do with the grand jury transcript if it were released. Lawyers for the New York Post said the newspaper would probably publish parts of it. Lawyers for James said she would use her influence to get new laws addressing problems that the transcript might expose.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and the chief public defender for Staten Island said the transcript would let the public decide whether officers get an easier ride at grand jury hearings than civilians.

The groups seeking the release said they would not object to parts that identified witnesses and jurors being redacted, and noted that Pantaleo's identity was already public.

Judge Garnett did not say when he would make his decision.

Garner's death prompted a proposal by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to reform the way the state prosecutes police who kill civilians.