Media Rally Against Grand Jury Secrecy

     (CN) – Dozens of media outlets joined the fight to have a New York appeals court unseal the grand-jury proceedings that let a police officer walk for the murder of Eric Garner.
     A medical examiner found that the fatal chokehold that New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo put on Garner, 43, was a homicide, but a Staten Island grand jury opted in December not to pursue charges.
     Protests erupted across the country as footage of the fatal encounter went viral, showing Garner’s gasping “I can’t breathe” at least 11 times before passing out. The police had stopped him for selling loosies, or loose cigarettes, near the Staten Island Ferry.
     The New York Civil Liberties Union is appealing the decision by Richmond County Judge William Garnett to keep the grand jury transcripts under seal, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed an amicus brief in support of that effort Monday.
     Bloomberg, Courthouse News Service and The New York Times are among a group of 29 media outlets that signed the brief to the Appellate Division’s 2nd Judicial District.
     The outlets note that the growing number of incidents across the country “involving officers and unarmed black men have created the greatest controversy over racial injustice in decades in this country, at least since the civil rights movement of the 1960s.”
     “The use of deadly force by police and the role that grand juries play in the criminal justice system are two topics of immense public interest and concern,” the 29-page brief states. “As the public’s primary source of information about these issues, the news media play an essential role in gathering and disseminating newsworthy information and providing context and commentary to world events.”
     In addition to the “interest in monitoring the conduct of public officers and the workings of the criminal justice system on behalf of the public,” the media outlets say they also seek to preserve “the right of access to documents, the disclosure of which is of the public interest.”
     Daniel Donovan, the Staten Island prosecutor who convened the grand jury at issue, won election earlier this month to represent the borough, and the southern tip of Brooklyn in Congress.
     The Republican’s predecessor, Michael Grimm, resigned in disgrace earlier this year after pleading guilty to a federal tax-evasion charge for underreporting earnings and hiring illegal immigrants at a former restaurant.
     Donovan defended secrecy in the grand-jury process as a means of ensuring that future witnesses are forthcoming without fear of public disclosure and scrutiny.
     The media groups countered this week that such “traditional underpinnings” “do not justify continued secrecy in this case.”
     “Maintaining the confidentiality of this material does nothing but fan the flames of theories of prosecutorial manipulation,” according to the brief.
     “Questions remain about the performance of the prosecutor, now an elected member of Congress, and the efficacy of the criminal justice itself,” the brief continues.
     The document also notes that in February, New York’s Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman called for a reform of the grand jury system in New York. Lippman said such secrecy does nothing but “undermine public trust and confidence in the justice system.”
     Garner’s death is part of a “relentless succession of racially charged incidents” involving unarmed black males killed by officers, the media groups note.
     The fatal spinal cord injury sustained by 25-year-old Freddie Gray in Baltimore earlier this month is only the latest occurrence in a list that also features Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014; Eric Harris in Tulsa, Okla., on April 2.; 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland in November; and Walter Scott, 50, in South Carolina, according to the brief.
     “As this controversy rages, the Garner case presents a perfect opportunity for the courts to allow members of the general public to know more about the grand jury system, not out of idle curiosity but to better perform the task of public oversight of the justice system,” the media groups say.
     Garner’s death and the other cases have bred “dangerous mistrust between communities and local police, sparking protests, galvanizing activists and inspiring reflection on law enforcement policies, race relations, and the grand jury system,” according to the brief.
     The groups say the public, “quite understandably, craves information” about the incidents to help better understand the legal system.
     The 29 outlets that joined the brief by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are Advance Publications Inc.; American Society Publications Inc.; American Society of News Editors; Association of Alternative Newsmedia; Bloomberg LP; BuzzFeed; Cable News Network Inc.; The Center for Investigative Reportint; Courthouse News Service; Daily News LP; Dow Jones & Co. Inc.; First Amendment Coalition; First Look Media Inc.; Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University; The McClatchy Co.; MediaNews Group Inc.; The National press Club; National Press Photographers Association; The New York Times Co.; News 12; Newsday LLC; North Jersey Media Group Inc.; NYP Holdings Inc.; Online News Association; Radio Television Digital News Association; Reuters America LLC; The Seattle Times Co.; Society of Professional Journalists; Tully Center for Free Speech; The Washington Post.
     Laura Handman in Washington, D.C., is the counsel of record for the group.

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