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Seal Holds in NYC Police Chokehold Case

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. (CN) - A judge faced harsh words Thursday after refusing to release the transcripts of the deliberations by a grand jury that cleared the police officer who killed Eric Garner.

In shooting down the request to release the transcripts, Richmond County Supreme Court Judge William Garnett found that the Legal Aid Society and others did not meet their burden.

In addition to finding that the release of such information would fly in the face of New York law, Garnett noted that the issue should go to Albany.

"If such a dramatic change is warranted, that change would be effected by the state Legislature," Garnett wrote.

According to New York law, a grand jury's proceedings are secret, and it's a felony to disclose its testimony, the judge noted.

It is true that the secrecy of that jury's testimony "is not sacrosanct," and the minutes can be revealed at the court's discretion, Garnett noted, but he said the parties didn't give him enough to offer such relief.

"In summary, the movants in this case merely ask for the disclosure for distribution to the public," he wrote. "This request is not a legally cognizable reason for disclosure."

Garner, 43, was selling "loosies," or single cigarettes, near the Staten Island Ferry last July when Officer Daniel Pantaleo put him in a fatal chokehold.

Video footage of the incident that has since gone viral shows Garner gasping, "I can't breathe," at least 11 times before passing out.

A medical examiner ruled his death was a homicide, the result of being put in a chokehold and compression to his chest.

But a grand jury on Staten Island decided in December not to indict Pantaleo, sparking nationwide protests.

A judge who later ordered the minutes be sealed then recused himself from the case, and shot the question of whether the grand jury's transcripts should be released to Garnett.

"What would they use the minutes for?" Garnett wondered. "The only answer which the court heard was the possibility of effecting legislative change. That proffered need is purely speculative and does not satisfy the requirements of the law."

Taking a swing at the New York Post, one of the parties to the challenge, Garnett had said "the newspaper would merely publish all, or part of, the minutes, and might use them as grist for its editorial mill."

"Journalistic curiosity is simply not a legally cognizable need under the law," he concluded.

The Legal Aid Society blasted his decision.

"We are disappointed by the court's decision and stand by the importance of unsealing," the group said. "Eric Garner was a son, father, husband and grandfather. His family, and the Staten Island community, deserve to know why, despite a clear video of Officer Pantaleo putting Mr. Garner in a chokehold and an medical examiner's report ruling his death a homicide by chokehold, there was no indictment on any charges."

The agency vowed to appeal. In addition to the Post, it was joined in the challenge by the city's Public Advocate, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Staten Island branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

During the appeal in a packed Staten Island courtroom, the NAACP's attorney asked that Garnett recuse himself and move the case elsewhere, claiming Garnett was part of the small-town legal system and couldn't be impartial.

But the judge called the request "meritless."

The NYCLU also had harsh words for the judge.

"We are disappointed that the court has chosen to perpetuate secrecy rather than promote transparency. In doing so, the court has reinforced the distrust many New Yorkers already feel toward the performance of the criminal justice system in this case," NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg said. "Under the law, there is a presumption in favor of grand jury secrecy. But that presumption is not absolute. The court has the discretion to order disclosure under compelling circumstances which were certainly present here."

"The failure to indict the officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner has left many wondering if black lives even matter," said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. "Sadly, today's decision will only leave many asking that same question again."

The city's Public Advocate, Leticia James, vowed to appeal.

"We are clearly disappointed with this ruling, but undaunted in our quest for justice and promoting reform of a broken system," she said.

"We believe that the public has the right to know what happened here behind closed doors," she said.

Staten Island's district attorney, Daniel Donovan, a Republican, pushed to keep the documents secret.

He is running against Democratic City Councilmember Vincent Gentile to replace disgraced former Rep. Michael Grimm, who resigned in January after copping to a federal charge of crooking the books at his former Manhattan restaurant.

Attempts to reach the NAACP late Thursday afternoon were unsuccessful

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