(CN) - Two candidates vying to fill the congressional seat of the disgraced Michael Grimm swapped barbs Tuesday over the handling of Eric Garner's death at the hands of a police officer's chokehold.
Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, a Republican, and local Democratic City Councilman Vincent Gentile, squared off in an hour-long, televised debate at the College of Staten Island Tuesday night.
Donovan, who helped investigate Grimm's conviction that led to his ouster, defended his decision to keep the transcripts of the Garner grand jury secret to ensure that future witnesses would be willing to testify.
The secrecy is "something that ought to remain," Donovan said, adding that releasing the information would prevent "anybody testifying for a grand jury."
Gentile called the point moot, however, noting that the identity of Garner's killer, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, is already known since a viral video of the incident sparked protests across the nation during a time of racial strife with police and the community.
"In this case, we don't have to worry about revealing about the defendant," Gentile said. "Everybody knows it was the police officer."
Gentile urged the DA to "consent to the release of the police officer's testimony."
"Secrecy breeds suspicion," he said.
Footage of the debate shows that it began with the removal from the building of a protester who was shouting "I can't breathe."
The protester was quoting the last words of Garner, who gasped them out at least 11 times before passing out in Pantaleo's fatal chokehold.
Pantaleo and other officers had stopped Garner, 43, near the Staten Island Ferry on July for allegedly selling "loosies," or loose cigarettes.
Authorities ruled his death a homicide.
After Donovan ordered the grand jury's deliberations remain secret, the Legal Aid Society, the NAACP, the New York Post and others fought to get access to the transcripts.
Richmond County Supreme Court Judge William Garnett shot them down in March.
The Staten Island branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for Donovan's ouster for breaching his "obligations and responsibilities as an attorney" in handling the Garner case.
Claiming that the legal and policing communities are in bed together, the NAACP asked Garnett to recuse himself and send the case elsewhere. The judge declined.
Voters go to the polls on May 5 election to select a replacement for Grimm in representing Staten Island and the southern tip of Brooklyn before Congress.
Grimm, a former Marine and FBI agent, resigned in January after copping to a federal tax evasion charge.
The congressman stood accused of underreporting earnings and hiring illegal immigrants at a health restaurant he once owned in Manhattan.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo set the special election only after voters sued him for dragging his heels.
Grimm meanwhile asked the judge to let him got to Europe for the summer, but
U.S. District Judge Pamela Chen clipped his wings.
Before pleading guilty to one charge of federal tax evasion, Grimm accused Donovan of gunning for him in a politically motivated bid to steal his seat.
Grimm faces three years when sentenced in June.
During the debate, the two candidates agreed on a few issues: Israel has a right to exist, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be executed, officers should be outfitted with body cameras, and that there should be more ferry services to the island.
Federal minimum wage was another focus of the debate.
Gentile asked Donovan if he knew what the rate was, but Donovan didn't seem to know the answer ($7.25), saying that it should be "as high as it can be as long as it can be sustained by small businesses."
The men also confirmed that they have both smoked pot.
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