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Here's Why Grand Jury Proceedings in New York Are So Secretive

By Murray Weiss | December 4, 2014 5:46pm
 Protesters gather near Rockefeller Center after the Eric Garner grand jury decision on Dec. 3, 2014.
Protesters gather near Rockefeller Center after the Eric Garner grand jury decision on Dec. 3, 2014.
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DNAinfo/Tom Liddy

MANHATTAN — New York State law guarantees the secrecy of grand juries to protect witnesses and victims from intimidation and prevent innocent people from being smeared in the court of public opinion.

That secrecy, though, has come into question this week in the wake of a Staten Island grand jury's decision not to indict an NYPD officer in the apparent chokehold death of Eric Garner. The decision touched off protests across the city, and calls for testimony and evidence from the proceedings to be released to the public.

Experts say grand jury confidentiality primarily guarantees "the freedom of witnesses" — that their appearance will not be revealed to anyone who might influence their testimony.

That also allows witnesses — including police officers — to feel comfortable that they can testify honestly about the actions of fellow officers without fear that their colleagues would find out.

“If I am testifying against a gang member, or even against a neighbor, do I want them to know that I am appearing before a grand jury, much less what I might have said?” a judicial source explained.

“The goal is to obtain unvarnished testimony, and as much of it as possible, and secrecy is a central part of it,” another top law enforcement official observed.

Each state has different rules governing the release of grand jury evidence. In Missouri, for example, prosecutors released all the evidence and testimony in the decision not to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.

New York law, however, prohibits such disclosure.

Staten Island DA Daniel Donovan took the unusual step Wednesday night of asking the court to release limited data — although the application did not include revealing the testimony or detailed evidence and exhibits.

The request was fundamentally granted, but the information that was released involved limited facts, much of it already public, that shed no new light on the case.