STATEN ISLAND — A judge denied requests to release testimony from the Eric Garner grand jury proceedings because it could "undermine the overriding concern for independence of our grand juries," according to his decision Thursday.
Judge William Garnett sided with District Attorney Dan Donovan to keep the grand jury testimony in Garner's case sealed, saying the parties who pushed for the records did not establish a clear need to lift secrecy and could place the witnesses in jeopardy, according to the motion.
"If every newsworthy case were deemed compelling and, thus justified disclosure, the veil of grand jury secrecy would be lifted," Garnett wrote in the filing.
"Every citizen's right to have fellow citizens, sitting on a grand jury, check the power of police and the prosecutor without pressure from outside influences — real or perceived — would be imperiled."
In January, lawyers for Public Advocate Letitia James, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Aid Society and the New York Post filed a motion in January for the courts to release minutes and testimony in the grand jury proceedings for Garner, 44, who died last year after he was arrested by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for selling untaxed cigarettes.
“We respect and will adhere to Judge Garnett’s well-reasoned decision," Donovan said in a statement.
A grand jury ruled in December not to indict Pantaleo for the death of Garner, which sparked waves of protests around the city.
In his filing, Garnett wrote that lifting the secrecy would be a "sea change" in the law and would require state law to change. He also said that because a potential federal inquiry into Garner's death could happen, the same witnesses would be used and the release could put them in danger of intimidation or tampering.
Lawyers asked Garnett 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.
"We are disappointed that the court has chosen to perpetuate secrecy rather than promote transparency," said NYCLU legal director Arthur Eisenberg in a statement. "In doing so, the court has reinforced the distrust many New Yorkers already feel toward the performance of the criminal justice system in this case."
On Thursday, James said she will "immediately" appeal the decision not to release the minutes.
We are disappointed in this ruling but undaunted in our quest for justice. #Garner— Letitia James (@TishJames) March 19, 2015
In court, lawyers argued the release would help the public understand why the 23-member grand jury ruled not to indict Pantaleo and help James and other lawmakers make meaningful reforms to the process.
"This case has clearly become the catalyst for widespread discussion for reform," Matthew Brinckerhoff, lawyer for James, said in court. "You can't reform a system if you don't know what's wrong with it."
Garnett wrote in his motion that because James cannot vote in the City Council or enact laws to modify grand jury proceedings, she does not need the testimony released and has a "myriad of sources" to review this case.
He also wrote that just because there's an interest in the case, it does not have a "compelling and particularized" need for release.
Throughout the case, Donovan and prosecutors tried to block the release, first citing a news report that a witness from Ferguson, Mo. was killed.
Assistant District Attorney Anne Grady in her opening statement to Judge William Garnett said the release would damage prosecutors' ability to convince people to serve on the grand jury or take the witness stand, citing a common street expression, "Snitches get stitches."
"The fact of disclosure in this case will be more widely known than the rule of secrecy," said Grady, adding that people are reluctant to talk to authorities for fear of retaliation.