Eric Garner Grand Jury Secrecy Appealed in NY

     BROOKLYN (CN) – A New York appeals court faces a call to release grand jury transcripts from the investigation of the police officer who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold.
     The push for access to the proceedings of the 23-person grand jury came amid nationwide protests fueled by video footage that went viral of Garner passing out in Staten Island police officer Daniel Pantaleo’s chokehold after repeatedly gasping, “I can’t breathe.”
     Pantaleo was part of a group of officers who stopped 43-year-old Garner on July 17, 2014, for selling “loosies,” or loose cigarettes, near the Staten Island Ferry.
     Garner’s death was ruled a homicide by coroners, but the grand jury opted in December not to charge Pantaleo.
     Richmond County Judge William Garnett shot down a request earlier this year by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the city’s Public Advocate, the New York Post and others to make the jury’s transcripts public.
     In a 33-page appeal filed Wednesday, the NYCLU asked the 2nd Judicial District “whether government secrecy should prevail over the public’s interest in a factually grounded debate among an informed electorate and their representatives about one of the most controversial public policy issues of the day, or whether such secrecy serves only to further erode the public’s fraying confidence in New York’s criminal justice system.”
     Garner’s death and the subsequent decision not to charge Pantaleo provoked an “on-going discussion in the halls of government and demonstrations in the streets of New York,” the appeal continues.
     “These discussions and demonstrations are part of an unprecedented nationwide conversation about reform of police practices and the American criminal justice system.”
     For the NYCLU, Garnett’s decision “adds fresh fuel to this raging public debate and exposes deep distrust between communities of color and the police.”
     “In New York, this debate has centered on the perception that aggressive policing practices, which disproportionately target people of color, led to Mr. Garner’s fatal encounter with police, and that there has been a lack of accountability for his death,” the appeal states. “The grand jury’s failure to return any indictment, despite shocking video evidence of the chokehold that killed Mr. Garner while he pled for his life, has spurred emotional claims about injustice within the criminal justice system and intellectual debates about reforms needed to improve that system.
     “Yet these debates take place without really knowing how or why police officers came to place Mr. Garner in a chokehold, what happened in the grand jury proceedings, and why the grand jury decided not to indict any officer involved in Mr. Garner’s death.”
     Such a “void” is “incompatible” with the First Amendment right for reasonable disclosure, the NYCLU says.
     NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg said in a statement that “the Garner controversy has provoked a debate about the need for grand jury reform.”
     “But discussions regarding the need for reform are proceeding without any real understanding of how and why the grand jury reached its decision,” Eisenberg added. “This absence of public information can and should be corrected. In a democracy, decisions about the need and nature of reform should rest upon a fully informed discussion by the electorate and its representatives. To provide for that reasoned decision-making, the general presumption in favor of Grand Jury secrecy should yield to transparency in this case.”
     Daniel Donovan, the Staten Island prosecutor who convened the grand jury and pushed to keep its deliberations secret, just won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, filling a seat left vacant this year after Michael Grimm copped guilty to federal tax evasion charges.
     The Republican’s campaign against New York Congressman Vincent Gentile made nary a mention of the Garner issue.
     The NYCLU says the decision to keep the public in the dark about the grand jury’s deliberations is “wholly insufficient to inform the NYCLU’s participation in ongoing public policy debates or to placate the public demand for transparency.”
     “Three public interests” compel disclosure of the grand jury transcripts, the group says, specifying those interests as restoring public confidence in the criminal justice system, informing public debate among the public and elected officials and informing “a public policy debate about policing practices and their impact on communities of color.”

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