NEW YORK -- A New York judge said on Monday that he will hear arguments later this month over whether to unseal the grand jury proceedings that resulted in the decision not to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner.
The New York Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Aid Society, the office of New York City Public Advocate Letitia James and The New York Post have all petitioned for the records to be released. At a short hearing at the New York State Supreme Court in Staten Island on Monday, Judge William Garnett told attorneys for those groups to prepare oral arguments for a hearing on Jan. 29.
Garnett also asked the office of Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan Jr. to prepare arguments against the release of the records. Donovan, who is opposed to the release, came under fire last month after the grand jury, which he convened, declined to indict New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo for Garner’s death.
Garner, 43, died on July 17 after Pantaleo put him into a chokehold during an arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes. The incident was caught on a video, which eventually went viral, showing Garner screaming “I can’t breathe” numerous times before his body went limp.
Grand jury proceedings are typically sealed -- meaning the public often never sees what evidence was presented to the grand jury -- unless a petitioner can prove that the release of the documents serves a compelling public interest. The groups advocating for the unsealing of the Garner proceedings believe that the release would improve the ongoing national debate about grand juries in light of recent police violence.
“What is particularly compelling in this case is that we’re engaged in a public conversation about grand jury proceedings and about police behavior,” Arthur Eisenberg, the NYCLU's legal director, told reporters after Monday’s hearing. “The disclosure of the grand jury minutes allows that conversation to be more informed and that, we think, under the circumstances of this case, is a compelling interest.”
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, added that the public debate surrounding Garner’s death is “so legitimately intense because the stakes are so high, the public has a right to know.”
“Sure, there are some matters that should legitimately be kept secret,” Lieberman continued, “but the lion’s share of what went on in that grand jury room needs to be made public. What is our future policy regarding grand juries? Should they exist, should they function in secret or should they be open? That’s what this case is about.
"If ever there was an application that involved compelling interest and the people’s right to know and lifting the veil of secrecy, this is it," Lieberman added.
Matthew Brinckerhoff, the attorney representing Public Advocate Letitia James, said that release of the records would help public officials like his client “evaluate potential reform measures,” such as the appointment of special prosecutors in cases against the police. Many have called for special prosecutors in these instances, arguing that district attorneys have an inherent conflict of interest when prosecuting police because they work so closely with police on other cases.
Brinckerhoff noted that there are precedents in New York courts for the release of grand jury records. “There are Court of Appeals cases -- the highest court in New York -- where grand jury minutes have been released to public officials,” he said.
Among those in the courtroom Monday was Gwen Carr, Garner’s mother, who wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “I can’t breathe.”
“I would like transparency, to see what actually happened,” she told reporters outside the courthouse, where a few dozen protesters had gathered during the hearing.
Carr was joined by Cynthia Davis of the National Action Network, who announced that the Garner family will hold protests outside the courthouse every Tuesday and Thursday until Judge Garnett decides on the case.
Donovan’s office did not respond to The Huffington Post's request for comment. Donovan -- who may soon announce a run for Congress to replace disgraced Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) -- last month released only an extremely limited set of details surrounding the grand jury proceedings.
The information Donovan provided was as follows: Sixty exhibits were admitted into evidence to the grand jury, which met for nine weeks and heard from a total of 50 witnesses. The jurors were also instructed in the law regarding the use of force by police officers.
These details are sparse compared to the complete set of documents that has been made public regarding the grand jury decision about the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The release of those documents in November raised serious questions about how St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch conducted those proceedings, which resulted in a decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for Brown's death. One of the grand jurors in the case is now suing McCulloch, accusing him of mischaracterizing the case against Wilson.
Monday’s hearing in New York was originally scheduled for last month, but was delayed after the judge in the case recused himself, citing a conflict of interest.