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DA Tries to Block Release of Garner Grand Jury Information, Citing Ferguson

By Nicholas Rizzi | January 5, 2015 1:11pm
 Judge William Garnett set a Jan. 29 hearing to decide if grand jury information on the Eric Garner case should be released.
Judge William Garnett set a Jan. 29 hearing to decide if grand jury information on the Eric Garner case should be released.
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New York Daily News

ST. GEORGE — Staten Island's District Attorney is trying to block the release of grand jury testimony in the Eric Garner case, saying that the information could put witnesses at risk as it reportedly has in Ferguson, Mo.

It could also provide a platform for grandstanding by the public advocate, he said.

Since the decision not to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Garner, there has been a public outcry and an effort on the part of news organizations to have the information released.

A judge ruled Monday that the case could proceed to oral arguments, despite the opposition of DA Dan Donovan.

In the wake of the grand jury decision last month, Donovan asked that certain details from the case should be released.

But court papers he filed then indicated that he only asked for limited information, the majority of which was already publicly available.

Grand jury proceedings are secret in New York State and disclosure is permitted only in very limited situations in order to protect witnesses and future proceedings.

On Monday, Judge William Garnett set a Jan. 29 date to hear oral arguments on releasing minutes from the proceedings.

Garnett met with lawyers from the New York Civil Liberties Union, Public Advocate Letita James and the Legal Aid Society on Monday as well.

Donovan's memo in response to the Legal Aid Society argues that the disclosure may lead to a "negative impact on future investigations" because of the fear it could instill in witnesses in "high-profile allegations of police misconduct."

"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," the memo states.

The court papers cite a report that a witness was killed in the wake of the release of grand jury information in the Ferguson case, even though "the bona fides of those news reports are highly questionable."

"But whether or not it is true, the report of the death as retribution for testimony favorable to the police officer can only have a negative effect on the candor of witnesses in similar cases," the memo says.

In the response to James, who called the decision "shocking and unconscionable" on Twitter, Donovan said that she wanted the minutes released just to "inform her opinions."

"[James'] request for all the grand jury materials on the ground that they may inform her opinions or trigger further inquiries is far from the type of particularized and compelling need necessary to set aside the presumption of confidentiality that adheres to grand jury proceedings," the filings read.

The decision to release the information was delayed last month after Judge Stephen Rooney recused himself from the case over a potential conflict of interest because his wife serves on the board of the Richmond University Medical Center.

The hospital employed four EMS workers who responded to Garner's death and were suspended from duty after video showed them giving little aid to the man.

Garner died while he was being arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes on a Tompkinsville street. Dramatic video shows him being put in an apparent chokehold by Pantaleo while saying "I can't breathe" several times.

The medical examiner later ruled Garner's death a homicide.

DA Dan Donovan Eric Garner Grand Jury Memos