By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York state appeals court heard arguments on Tuesday over unsealing minutes of a grand jury that declined to indict a white New York police officer in the chokehold death of an unarmed black man.
A coalition of groups seeking release of the transcripts told the four-judge panel that grand jury secrecy undermined confidence in the justice system and hampered debate among state lawmakers weighing grand jury reforms.
The groups, which included the Legal Aid Society, want the appeals court to overturn a Staten Island justice's decision in March to bar release of records of the grand jury that probed the death of Eric Garner, 43, last year.
"The secrecy only reinforces suspicion, and there is deep suspicion here in the communities of color and among others," New York Civil Liberties Union attorney Art Eisenberg told the justices of the Supreme Court Appellate Division Second Department.
Other parties requesting the release of minutes include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and New York City's public advocate office.
Garner, a father of six, died when a New York police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, held him in a chokehold during his arrest in July on suspicion he was selling loose cigarettes.
The incident caught on video was among the cases that sparked nationwide protests over police treatment of minorities. Garner's last words: "I can't breathe," have become a rallying cry for protesters.
But Assistant District Attorney for Staten Island, Anne Grady, contended that breaching the practice of keeping grand jury records secret would not restore public confidence.
Citing a prior release of some information about the grand jury's proceedings, Grady argued that "further disclosure will simply raise more questions."
Lawyers for groups appealing the judge's decision cited a New York Times article on Saturday that quoted witnesses who testified in the grand jury. The lawyers said it raised questions over the district attorney's conduct in overseeing the grand jury proceedings.
"There's a lot of disturbing information that's been revealed in the last couple of days," said attorney Matthew Brinckerhoff, representing the office of Public Advocate Letitia James, speaking outside of court.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Peter Cooney)