Lawyers, the NYCLU and Public Advocate Leticia James (pictured at podium) appeared with the family of Eric Garner in Richmond County Court Thursday, arguing for the public release of grand jury minutes.
Garner was a 43-year-old Staten Island man fatally choked during a confrontation with police last July. A grand jury declined to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who choked Garner, in December. The encounter between the two was captured on video, and when Pantaleo was not charged, protests erupted across the country for what many saw as a miscarriage of justice.
Per court papers by the NYCLU, the records—which by protocol usually remain secret—need to be made public in order “to restore public confidence in our criminal justice system and to inform the current debate that has begun regarding the role of the grand jury as an instrument of justice or injustice.”
However, Staten Island D.A. Robert Donovan’s office countered that such a release would expose the jurors to an “inevitable result of harassment or retaliation.” In addition, the jurors testified “with full assurances of secrecy,” Donovan added.
Speaking outside the courthouse after the proceedings, Erica Garner (pictured right of James, in foreground) and others expressed why the release was imperative.
“My family really wants to know what was said, presented in that courtroom to the grand jury. I would like to get more information, more than what I can get online,” Erica said, adding that it would help her get an idea of how prosecutors presented her father to the jurors.
Garner also took aim at local politicians, noting that “they ran an election last year, and never mentioned my father once. They showed up in the hood, passed out leaflets and thought they had it in the bag. [Now] they’re trying to use my father’s name as a platform to run on.”
James said the release was needed “to address the public perception that there are irreconcilable differences between that which was presented to the grand jury and the video that we all witnessed.” She added that they want grand jury information without subverting jurors’ rights to secrecy, as protected by state law.
“What were the charges that were presented to the grand jury?” she asked. “Who were the experts that presented DNA evidence to the grand jury? It took several weeks for this grand jury to be presented. Most grand juries are usually held within days.”
If Judge William Garnett rules that the grand jury minutes are to remain private, James warned that the next step would be filing an appeal in the New York State Court’s Appellate Division.
The request for the records comes two months after St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch released documents given to the grand jury in the Michael Brown case.
In that same month, McCulloch admitted he knew some of the witnesses lied about being at Brown’s murder scene, but let them testify regardless. That helped set a precedent for James and the NYCLU to strongly challenge the jury process, especially as it relates to police killing unarmed citizens.