ST. GEORGE — The Eric Garner grand jury testimony should not be released, a Staten Island Assistant District Attorney argued Thursday during a hearing to determine if the records should be opened, because "snitches get stitches" and opening the files will dissuade people from testifying.
Lawyers for Public Advocate Letitia James, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Aid Society and the New York Post argued that the release of the information is vital to inform the public on the grand jury process and for lawmakers to make meaningful reforms. District Attorney Dan Donovan already open the door when he petitioned a limited amount to be released after the decision, the lawyers said.
However, Assistant District Attorney Anne Grady in her opening to Judge William Garnett said the release would damage prosecutors' to convince people to serve on the grand jury or take the witness stand, citing a common street expression.
"The fact of disclosure in this case will be more widely known than the rule of secrecy," Grady said in court, adding that people are reluctant to talk to authorities for fear of retaliation.
"Snitches get stitches.... [witnesses] don't want to be part of the case."
During their rebuttal, lawyers assured Garnett several times they do not want to identify people who serve on the grand jury or witnesses, saying the DA was trying to scare the court into keeping the information secret.
"It's an unfounded [argument] drawn on fear in order to get this court to not grant disclosure," said Christopher Pisciotta, lawyer for the Legal Aid Society.
In July, Garner, 44, died after he was arrested on a Tompkinsville street for selling untaxed cigarettes by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. The arrest was caught on a dramatic video showing Pantaleo apparently put Garner in a chokehold.
In December, a 23-member grand jury ruled not to indict Pantaleo for the death of Garner.
On Thursday, lawyers asked the judge to release the potential charges brought to the grand jury for Pantaleo, the non-testimonial evidence, Pantaleo's testimony and testimony given by the 50 witnesses — with their names redacted.
Matthew Brinckerhoff, lawyer for James, said that the release will let the public understand why Pantaleo was not indicted and help James and other lawmakers make meaningful reform to the grand jury process.
"This case has clearly become the catalyst for widespread discussion for reform," Brinckerhoff said. "You can't reform a system if you don't know what's wrong with it."
Lawyers also pointed out that Dan Donovan himself petitioned the judge to release limited information on the grand jury — which was granted — and set a precedent that there's a public need for more to be disclosed.
Aside from potentially scaring off future witnesses, Grady said people could use the transcripts to make any assumption they want on the process, it would subject the members of the grand jury to unnecessary scrutiny, secrecy is key to the process and the only public who would need the information is Staten Island, who already voted to not indict Pantaleo through the grand jury.
"This monolithic public apparently includes anybody worldwide who read an account about the case and is unhappy," Grady said in court. "The only public are the residents of Staten Island and the county of Richmond."
Garnett also heard arguments from the NAACP, who filed a motion to have the judge recuse himself and the case be moved outside of Staten Island.
"This system has been compromised," James Meyerson, lawyer for the NAACP, said. "You're part of Richmond County, the compromised system."
Garnett said he would file his decision to the courts but did not give a timeline as to when.