By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The testimony a New York City grand jury heard before declining to indict a white police officer in the 2014 chokehold death of unarmed black man Eric Garner will remain secret, the state's highest court ruled on Monday.
The New York Court of Appeals declined to review a lower court's decision in July not to release the grand jury minutes, ensuring they will remain sealed.
Civil rights groups and the city's public advocate had sought to review the secret proceedings, after the decision not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in Garner's death sparked widespread protests last December.
Grand jury materials are typically not made public.
The court did not offer any explanation. In July, a midlevel appellate court ruled the "public interest in preserving grand jury secrecy outweighed the public interest in disclosure."
Garner, a 43-year-old father of six, was selling loose cigarettes illegally on Staten Island in New York City on July 17 last year when Pantaleo placed him in a chokehold, a maneuver banned by the New York City Police Department, and tackled him to the ground with the help of other police officers.
The incident was caught on video, including Garner's pleas that he could not breathe, and the city medical examiner later ruled Garner's death a homicide, with asthma and obesity as contributing factors.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups seeking to have the grand jury proceedings released, said it would press for changes to the law regarding grand jury secrecy in cases when civilians due at the hands of police.
"No one has been held accountable for the death of Eric Garner, and New Yorkers still don’t know why," she said.
A spokesman for the Staten Island district attorney's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment late on Monday.
New York City agreed in July to pay Garner's family $5.9 million to resolve a claim over his death.
The grand jury's decision not to indict Pantaleo came just a week after a grand jury in Missouri declined to charge a white police officer with the shooting of an unarmed black man.
That decision sparked a fresh round of violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Prosecutors in that case elected to release some grand jury testimony in an effort to show the proceeding had been fair.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Tom Brown)