A New York judge is due to hear arguments on Monday whether to make public records of a grand jury hearing into the case of an unarmed black man killed after a policeman put him in a chokehold while arresting him for peddling loose cigarettes.
After an unusually lengthy session lasting nine weeks, the grand jury voted in December not to indict the police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, for his role in the death of Eric Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk last summer.
Captured on video, Garner’s repeated cries of “I can’t breathe!” as Pantaleo holds him by his neck have become a slogan for protesters at rallies across the United States who accuse police forces of being hostile towards black citizens.
The groups asking for the records to be made public say they are expecting a tough legal battle in a case that has drawn the attention of U.S. President Barack Obama and his Justice Department. But, they say, it is important to show how the grand jury came to its conclusion, and possibly expose flaws in the secrecy-shrouded process.
Grand jury proceedings, which are led by the prosecutor, are secret by law. The New York Civil Liberties Union, the city’s public advocate, the Legal Aid Society and the New York Post have each filed petitions in State Supreme Court in Staten Island arguing that an exception should be made in the Garner case.
The United States is one of very few countries to still use grand juries to decide whether to indict someone with a crime. The system has come under renewed scrutiny with the cases of Garner and of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager killed by a white police officer last August in Ferguson, Missouri.
In the Brown case, a St. Louis County grand jury voted in November not to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, for killing Brown. In both cases, protesters and some elected officials were angered that there would be no public trials, sparking a new wave of street rallies in recent weeks.
Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU’s executive director, said overcoming the presumption of secrecy will be an uphill fight.
“We are all concerned about the failure of a secret process to provide any vehicle for accountability in the case of Eric Garner,” Lieberman said. “It has raised serious questions about the ongoing viability of the grand jury process as it is currently structured.”
In the case in Ferguson, the county prosecutor decided to publicly release most of the transcripts from the proceedings and evidence he presented to the grand jury.
Daniel Donovan, Jr., the district attorney who handled the Garner case, has said New York’s law is tougher than in Missouri, although a judge allowed him to say how many witnesses were called and whether or not they were civilians. His spokesman declined to comment on the petitions, which are before Judge William Garnett.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; editing by Andrew Hay)