NEW YORK (AP) — Civil liberties lawyers urged a state judge on Thursday to reverse a district attorney's attempt to keep secret the grand jury testimony concerning the police chokehold death of an unarmed man, saying the public needs to reconcile a widely watched video of the arrest with the decision not to indict the officer involved.
"Transparency is better than secrecy. Light is better than darkness," Arthur Eisenberg, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said at hearing on Staten Island attended by the mother and widow of 43-year-old Eric Garner.
Eisenberg and other lawyers were met with sharp questioning by Judge William Garnett over the legal reasoning that would justify making an exception to the long-standing practice of keeping the process secret. The lawyers sought to convince him that disclosing inner workings of the decision not to indict Daniel Pantaleo — the white New York Police Department officer seen putting the black Garner in what the medical examiner called a fatal chokehold — would restore public faith in the justice system and help legislators decide whether the process needs more transparency.
"You can't reform a system if you don't know what went wrong with it. . It's fundamental," said attorney Matthew Brinkerhoff, attorney for Public Advocate Latisha James.
The attorneys claimed that police officers, who work with prosecutors on a daily basis, are given special treatment when suspected of a crime. The grand jury heard from 50 witnesses over several weeks — a departure from the usual practice of using scant evidence tailored to get an indictment, said Christopher Pisciotta, a Legal Aid Society attorney.
If everyone was "treated the same, I would have less of a problem here. There is a perception that Officer Pantaleo was treated differently," Pisciotta said.
Arguing for District Attorney Daniel Donovan, prosecutor Anne Grady challenged her opponents' claims that it was in the "public interest" to release the minutes.
"I submit the only public here is the citizens of Staten Island," she said. "The public has spoken — the 23 members of the grand jury."
Grady also argued that disclosure would damage the credibility of prosecutors seeking to assure both grand jurors and witnesses that details of their participation would be kept from public view.
"Witnesses to violent crimes need to know their identities will be protected," she said.
The proponents claimed Donovan was duplicitous for going to court to ask for a partial disclosure of details like the number of witnesses, only to turn around and argue against the release of more meaningful information like testimony and prosecutors' instructions to the grand jury.
The judge pressed that question, asking, "He opened the door, so why shouldn't that throw the door wide open?"
Grady responded that unlike the other side, Donovan had narrowed his request to specific material that could be disclosed without compromising the integrity of the system.
Pantaleo and other officers stopped Garner on July 17 on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. A video shot by an onlooker and widely watched online shows Garner telling the officers to leave him alone and refusing to be handcuffed.
Pantaleo responded by wrapping his arm around Garner's neck — what he said was a sanctioned takedown move and not a banned chokehold. 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 NYCLU and others have asked the court to order Donovan to release the grand jury transcript, including the testimony of Pantaleo and dozens of 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 a white officer in the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old.
The judge said he would issue a written ruling at a later date.