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A Judge Decided the Eric Garner Grand Jury Proceedings Should Stay Secret

State Supreme Court Justice William E. Garnett was unpersuaded by arguments that the public has a right to know how the grand jury came to its decision not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo.
March 20, 2015, 3:36pm
Protesters stage a "die-in" after the Garner non-indictment was announced in December. Photo via Flickr user Millions March NYC

In early January, lawyers from the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Aid Society, the Public Advocate's Office and even the New York Post stood in front of a Staten Island judge with a simple, if legally complicated, request:

They wanted to see the secret grand jury proceedings in the Eric Garner case.

The petitioners wanted to know how and why the court decided to not even indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the videotaped chokehold that killed Garner in July, especially after the release of the grand jury proceedings in the Michael Brown case. As one protester, Ruben Mendez, told me, "I see no reason why it shouldn't be released—Ferguson was a much more dangerous situation, and they released them there."

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But on Thursday afternoon, State Supreme Court Justice William E. Garnett ruled that whatever happened in that grand jury room stay secret.

In a 12-page opinion, Justice Garnett denied the request to release the documents in the Garner case, effectively siding with Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, whose office had argued that their release would lead to an "inevitable result of harassment or retaliation."

Responding to each party individually, Justice Garnett cited the lack of a "compelling or particularized need" to see the proceedings released. In this case, he deemed the motive an interest—not a need—even if the petitioners were arguing that the whole damn process was screwed.

"What would they use the minutes for?" he wrote. "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."

Garnett argued that headlines do not translate into legal standing; just because the Garner case was such a big controversy does not mean the proceedings merit publication. Essentially, he's making the case that if the documents were released, it'd be a slippery slope for the sacred institution of secret grand jury proceedings in America.

"If every newsworthy case were deemed compelling and, thus justified disclosure, the veil of grand jury secrecy would be lifted and every citizen's right to have fellow citizens, sitting on a grand jury, check the power of the police and the prosecutor without pressure from outside influence—real or perceived—would be imperiled," Garnett said in the opinion.

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On Thursday, Staten Island DA Donovan's office predictably called the decision "well-reasoned." And you can't blame him: The release of the grand jury proceedings might have been lethal to Donovan's congressional campaign, even if his borough is more sympathetic to police than the rest of New York City.

Almost immediately after Justice Garnett's decision, the NYCLU announced the natural next step: appeal. However, New York's grand jury secrecy laws are some of the nation's most stringent, making this an uphill battle with no tangible endgame.

"We are disappointed that the court has chosen to perpetuate secrecy rather than promote transparency," NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg said in a statement. "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."

In the meantime, the Department of Justice is still conducting an investigation into whether or not Officer Pantaleo violated Eric Garner's civil rights. In early March, a similar inquiry essentially led to the vindication of Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, even if a related DOJ report could end up dismantling the Ferguson Police Department. But with a federal monitor and inspector general already in place to oversee the NYPD, it's unlikely that the investigation will result in anything nearly as impactful as the Ferguson report, let alone an indictment.

Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network, which has been heavily involved in the Garner case, is holding out some hope. "We will not be discouraged as we continue to fight for the family of Eric Garner as they await the decision in the federal investigation of his death," the group said in a statement. "We will continue to push for legislation and policies that protect the rights of all citizens."

The one thing that does look certain is the fate of a $75 million wrongful death civil lawsuit that the Garner family has filed against the city, with the help of famed civil rights attorney Jonathan Moore. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has said that his office is seeking to settle the lawsuit soon, which, given the city's recent track record, likely means a generous payout.

This sequence of events, unfortunately, is the reality of criminal justice when it comes to police in New York City, and much of America. The serious stuff—like releasing grand jury proceedings for everyone to see—fails, making way for a price tag on an individual death rather than measures to prevent those deaths from happening again.

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