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Cuomo Eyes Lifting Grand Jury Secrecy in Police Fatality Cases, Sources Say

By Murray Weiss | January 14, 2015 7:32am
 New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio hold a press conference at Bellevue Hospital after a doctor tested positive for the Ebola virus Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014.
New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio hold a press conference at Bellevue Hospital after a doctor tested positive for the Ebola virus Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014.
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DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg

NEW YORK CITY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo is considering lifting grand jury secrecy in cases where people died in clashes with the police as a way to increase public trust in the criminal justice system, DNAinfo New York has learned.

In the wake of Eric Garner's death, the governor has repeatedly said there is a perception that the system is not "color blind," particularly in cases involving the police.

Sources say the governor has spoken to key law enforcement and court officials for input on sensible paths to provide the public with clarity on grand jury proceedings.

Topping the list is releasing evidence and testimony presented to grand juries where police officers are the subject of investigations that end with no charges and do not go to trial, as occurred in the Garner case.

He is also studying whether to have a special prosecutor handle all instances where someone dies in a clash with police.

But sources say Cuomo has been told that no governor has ever done that because it would undermine the credibility and faith in local district attorneys, and that special prosecutors should only be used when a DA is unable to fulfill their constitutional duty or has a conflict. 

“[Cuomo] seems to understand that that is not a viable alternative,” a source said.

Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment.

Sources said court officials have suggested eliminating grand jury secrecy in all high profile cases involving public officials — not just police — but politicians would likely oppose it.

"No one would want sleazy stuff exposed if they were cleared," another source explained.

Following the Garner grand jury decision, Cuomo said that he, “like many Americans,” was surprised that no indictment was leveled against Officer Daniel Pantaleo, especially since there was a powerful video that captured Pantaleo putting an arm around the Staten Islander’s neck as Pantaleo and other officers wrestled him to the ground. 

The video also caught Garner repeatedly saying his could not breathe.

A state Supreme Court judge on Staten Island is conducting hearings on whether to release the grand jury minutes in the Garner case — something rarely done in New York because of long-held beliefs that secrecy ensures protection of witnesses.

Ironically, in 1985, Cuomo’s father, Mario, convened a panel that recommended lifting grand jury secrecy after Queens cops used a stun gun on a suspect in a station house,"On the Inside" previously reported.

Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, has said he welcomes releasing the Garner grand jury evidence. But he has not addressed whether he would support such a move in all cases.

Other union leaders, however, privately told “On The Inside” that they would support the change.

“To suggest that either a district attorney and a grand jury is acting with bias in such a high profile cases is absurd in 2015,” one union official said, asking for anonymity.

"Anything that provides clarity that can give the public all the evidence and the entire story, and not just seeing a video that captures a snippet of activity, would be something I could support.”