The public still can't look at transcripts from the grand jury investigation into the death of Eric Garner, a New York appeals court ruled Wednesday.
A four-judge panel from New York’s Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department, upheld a previous decision from a lower court that found no “compelling and particularized need” to release the grand jury records.
Despite video evidence showing NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo putting Garner into a prohibited chokehold while arresting him for selling untaxed cigarettes in Staten Island last July, a grand jury in December declined to indict Pantaleo. That decision set off massive protests across the city and the country.
It also prompted New York City Public Advocate Letitia James and four organizations -- the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Aid Society, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the New York Post -- to file a petition seeking the release of records from the grand jury investigation.
Grand jury records are typically kept sealed, so it’s largely unknown what evidence Daniel Donovan, who was then district attorney for Staten Island, presented to the jurors. Critics have long argued that local district attorneys like Donovan have a conflict of interest in cases that involve police, with whom they often work closely on other cases.
Matthew Brinckerhoff, an attorney for James, argued in court last month that there was a “perception of misconduct” in Donovan’s handling of the case -- especially after a New York Times investigation found evidence that prosecutors under Donovan didn’t aggressively pursue charges against Pantaleo.
Looking at the grand jury records, Brinckerhoff argued, would be helpful to James and other elected officials in their efforts to shape grand jury reform.
But in Wednesday’s unanimous decision, the court ruled that this argument was “unpersuasive.”
“The appellants failed to establish how or in what manner these grand jury materials would inform legislative debate beyond the facts that are already publicly known of the case, and beyond reform proposals that are already being discussed on their own merits,” the decision reads.
At least three of the appellants are appealing the court’s decision. The case will now head to the New York Court of Appeals.
“We are disappointed with the Court's decision and will continue to fight for the release of this proceeding,” a spokeswoman for the Legal Aid Society said in a statement. “Transparency and accountability are the only way this City can begin to heal from the tragedy of Eric Garner's death.”
Arthur Eisenberg, legal director at the NYCLU, said in a statement that it had been the NYCLU’s argument in court that “disclosure of the grand jury records is necessary to inform the community and its representatives in the legislature and allow for an informed debate regarding the issue of grand jury reform in cases involving lethal behavior by police officers.”
“The governor and the legislature have been considering how to address the problem of alleged misbehavior by police officers and the apparent conflict that arises when a district attorney is called upon to prosecute the police,” Eiesnberg continued. “In order to address such issues it is important to know how and why the grand jury reached the decision that it did. The Eric Garner case presented a special circumstance for grand jury disclosure to advance the need of an informed electorate. The court’s opinion didn’t even consider that crucial question.”
James, meanwhile, said in a statement that “the public deserves to know what happened with that grand jury and why what we saw with our eyes did not match the failure to indict those responsible for Eric Garner’s death.”
“The road to justice is often bumpy, but we cannot and will not turn back,” she said. “We will continue to fight to bring sunlight into a system that has been shrouded in secrecy for far too long.”