Legal Groups Fight in Court for More Info on Eric Garner Grand Jury
A demonstrator at the Millions March on December 13
Skyler Reid for the Village Voice
The call to release testimony heard by the Staten Island grand jury that cleared Daniel Pantaleo got a big boost last week, when Public Advocate Letitia James and two legal advocacy groups applied to have a wide range of materials from the proceedings disclosed.
The court in Staten Island has so far released only the most basic information about the grand jury that examined Eric Garner's death.
The secrecy isn't unusual -- grand jury testimony is confidential in New York, as it is in many other states -- but after the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, released virtually every bit of evidence heard in their examination of Michael Brown's fatal encounter with Darren Wilson, the idea of making the testimony public has gained traction.
James, along with the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Aid Society, made their motions for release last week. Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, said their filings had been under seal until Thursday, and the parties were bound by a gag order that prohibited them even from talking about the effort.
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She said the release of testimony is the only way to know how the prosecutor, Richmond County (Staten Island) D.A. Daniel Donovan, approached the case.
"A big issue here is what role the prosecutor played in the decision of the grand jury," Lieberman says. "The prosecutor is the only lawyer in the room, and has enormous impact with a grand jury."
District attorneys in grand jury cases select all the testimony and evidence the jury sees, and act without an adversarial counterpart. The hundreds of pages of records released in Missouri seemed to show gentle questioning of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Brown, and painted a picture of a D.A. who wasn't really interested in an indictment.
Despite what happened in Ferguson, in New York, the release of the testimony would be a legal long shot -- possibly even unprecedented -- but Lieberman said the public attention in the case makes it critical to try.
"We know it's an uphill battle, but I think the public outcry in response to the grand jury proceedings and the enormous harm that is done by the secrecy, the total secrecy, needs to be addressed," Lieberman says.
The court released basic information on December 4, like the number of witnesses who testified and other more or less statistical data.
Even that was unusual, but Judge Stephen Rooney, in making his ruling, noted that the publicity that had been generated by the case made it important to let some information out.
It was a line focused on by the NYCLU in their argument:
Public confidence in the integrity and fairness of the criminal justice system has been severely shaken by the grand jury's decision in the Garner case. A substantial segment of the New York City community perceives the outcome of this grand jury process to be unfair and incompatible with video accounts of the incident that resulted in Mr. Garner's death...As this court thoughtfully observed "[s]omewhat uniquely in this matter, the maintenance of trust in our criminal justice system lies at the heart of these proceedings...at a crucial moment in our nation's history, where public confidence in the evenhanded application of these core values among a diverse citizenry is being questioned."
Read the rest of the motion below.
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