New York Supreme Court refuses to release Eric Garner grand jury documents
NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo choking Eric Garner in New York City (Screenshot/YouTube)

Petition from civil rights groups had demanded the release of transcript including testimony from the police officer who put Garner in a chokehold before he died

A Staten Island judge on Thursday has decided to keep secret the grand jury testimony in the case of Eric Garner, a black man who died after being placed in a police chokehold by a white New York police officer.

A petition from the the New York Civil Liberties Union and others had called for the release of the grand jury transcripts, including testimony by Daniel Pantaleo, the New York police officer involved in the incident. It was brought by NYCLU; the Legal Aid Society; Letitia James, the city’s public advocate; the New York Post; and the NAACP.

“The failure to indict the officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner has left many wondering if black lives even matter,” NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. “Sadly, today’s decision will only leave many asking that same question again.”

Veteran New York Supreme Court Justice William E Garnett said in the ruling that he did not believe the civil rights lawyers had established a compelling enough reason for warrant a disclosure of the grand jury minutes.

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

The Garner family was not a part of the petition but supported calls for the release of the grand jury transcripts. Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr, and his daughter, Erica Garner were present in court for the oral arguments.

The case stemmed from a grand jury decision not to indict Pantaleo, who was seen on video placing Garner, 43, in a chokehold as Garner gasped: “I can’t breathe.”

Garner died of injuries sustained during the June 17 arrest. The decision not to indict Pantaleo touched off protests that roiled the streets in New York City and beyond and raised issues of police brutality, racial equity and the efficacy of grand juries.

Disclosure of the grand jury minutes was opposed by the office of the Richmond County district attorney Daniel Donovan, who is running in a special election to replace former US representative Michael Grimm who resigned in January amid fraud allegations.

Following the non-indictment in December, Donovan requested that limited information about the grand jury be released. In a brief order acquiescing the district attorney’ s request, a judge revealed that the grand jury heard from 50 witnesses – 22 civilians plus police officers, emergency workers and doctors – over the course of nine weeks.

In addition to Pantaleo’s testimony, the petitioning parties sought the release of the charges presented against the officer involved, the instructions provided to jurors and the minutes, with some information, such as the jurors’ names, redacted.

Grand juries take place in secret, and the testimony is rarely made public. The release of the grand jury minutes in the case of Michael Brown, a black Missouri teen who was shot dead by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson police officer, was highly unusual.

Those calling for the release of the transcripts argued that it was in the public interest and would help restore public trust in the criminal justice system, which the secrecy around the case had eroded. The NAACP went as far as to say the public would not trust any decision made by a court in Staten Island, and requested the case be re-heard in another district.

Donovan argued that heightened public interest in a case is not a compelling enough reason to the grand jury minutes.