The Richmond County Supreme Court on Staten Island is located directly across the street from the ferry terminal, proximity that made it all too easy on Monday morning for lawyers, media outlets, and protesters to attend further motions to release the grand jury proceedings in the case of Eric Garner. It's been little over a month since that tumultuous decision to not indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for Garner's death, and, from that December afternoon on, criminal justice advocates have demanded transparency. The question is simple: How, exactly, against the backdrop of a gruesome chokehold video seen by millions, did Pantaleo walk free?
Before the court packing, a smattering of protesters gathered on the steps of the neoclassical building, carrying signs that asked, "What are they hiding?"
"We're here to place pressure on the court," Ruben Mendez, an organizer, told me. "The public needs to know what happened behind closed doors. I see no reason why it shouldn't be released—Ferguson was a much more dangerous situation, and they released them there."
Inside the small courtroom, lawyers from the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), the Legal Aid Society, the Public Advocate's office, and tabloids like the New York Post gathered to hear from William Garnett, the new justice on the case. After a brief reading of the motions, he allowed them to proceed by declaring a date for oral arguments: January 29.
Sitting in the back row of the court, Gwen Carr wore a button that read "Eric Garner family" and a sweater emblazoned "I Can't Breathe"—her son's final words that have become a rallying cry for protesters. "I'm pleased to see that they're finally moving forward," she said after the announcement. "I don't know yet what will happen, but we will see."
What we do know is that, come late January, the office of District Attorney Dan Donovan will inform Carr and the public why he thinks secrecy is the best route here. "To this point, the DA has filed papers in opposition to us," Arthur Eisenberg, the NYCLU attorney told me. "He's vigorously opposed our motions at every step."
In a memo released to the Legal Aid Society, Donovan explained his reasoning: "The intense interest in the case during the grand jury investigation caused fear in both witnesses and grand jurors, and placed a chilling effect on witnesses' willingness to come forward." He later argued that the release could have a "negative impact on future investigations" and called for a limited viewing of some details, most of which are already publicly known.
Donovan has already faced criticism for having that mindset from both sides of the political spectrum—a reaction that could become a problem, especially since it's rumored that the embattled prosecutor may be running for Representative Michael Grimm's now empty seat. (Grimm recently stepped down after pleading guilty to tax evasion.)
Grand jury proceedings are, of course, inherently controversial—it's a feature of the US criminal justice system that pisses off prisoners' advocates and Serial fans alike since, in most cases, the tell-all details these proceedings contain are kept private, both during and after deliberations. Ideally, this is meant to shield the court from public opinion, with the lifetime gag order imposed on the jurors involved serving as a serious wall of privacy.
That shield can occasionally be struck down: In Michael Brown's case, the St. Louis County prosecutor immediately and voluntarily released the grand jury minutes, in what can be seen as a way to keep racial tensions in the area from boiling over (of course, they did anyway). Now a Ferguson juror is suing St. Louis County in order to speak publicly about the case, arguing that Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCullough "muddled" the presentation of the legal standards in the case, and placed "a stronger focus on the victim [Brown] than in other cases presented to the grand jury."
In New York, however, restrictions on releasing grand jury proceedings are much tougher, so, given Donovan's position, it's basically up to the court to decide if there is a compelling public interest to unseal the proceedings. Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU Director, believes there is. "If there ever was a case that had that, it is this one," Lieberman said. Bill Dobbs, a communications director for the protesters, at one point told reporters: "Let the truth out, and let the sunshine in… Surely New York can do as good as Missouri."
That remains the central dynamic here: These two cases dominated the American criminal justice conversation in the second half of 2014. In fact, they sparked that conversation in the first place. So why hide the facts of one and not the other?
The process to release them in New York is shaping up to be a prolonged fight. Cynthia Davis, the President of Al Sharpton's National Action Network chapter on Staten Island, stood alongside Ms. Carr outside of the Supreme Court building, promising further action.
"Now that the officers were laid to rest," Davis said, a reference to Detectives Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, whose murder in recent weeks led Mayor Bill de Blasio to call for a suspension of police reform activity. "Our weekly protests will resume tomorrow."
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