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Appellate Court Denies Release of Eric Garner Grand Jury Minutes

By Nicholas Rizzi | July 29, 2015 4:33pm
 A Brooklyn appellate panel upheld the decision by state Supreme Court Justice William Garnett to keep the testimony and minutes from the Eric Garner grand jury sealed.
A Brooklyn appellate panel upheld the decision by state Supreme Court Justice William Garnett to keep the testimony and minutes from the Eric Garner grand jury sealed.
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Facebook/R.I.P Eric Garner

STATEN ISLAND — A Brooklyn appeals court upheld a judge's decision not to release the testimony from the Eric Garner grand jury.

The Brooklyn-based state appellate panel on Wednesday denied an appeal from Public Advocate Letitia James and several other groups seeking to overturn Justice William Garnett's decision to keep the testimony and minutes from the grand jury proceedings sealed.

The grand jury ruled in December not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for Garner's July 17 2014 death. Advocates argued that the release of the minutes — with witnesses' names redacted — was necessary to help the public understand why the 23-person jury made the decision they did even though the officer was caught on video putting Garner in an apparent chokehold and wrestling him to the ground while he said "I can't breathe" numerous times.

James' lawyer also said it would help the public advocate make reforms to the grand jury process in New York.

The four Brooklyn judges — Mark Dillon, John Leventhal, Leonard Austin and Sandra Sgroi — all ruled that the groups did not show a sufficient need to break the seal of secrecy in grand juries, adding that there was already enough information available to the public about the case.

"[T]he appellants have failed to demonstrate that relevant information cannot be obtained from sources other than the grand jury minutes to permit lawmakers to fashion legislation, if appropriate, concerning reform of the grand jury process and police practices," the judges wrote in their decision. 

"The appellants' argument that there is a compelling and particularized need for disclosing the grand jury materials in order to help shape legislative debate at the State Capitol for potential grand jury reform is unpersuasive."

Even though their motion was denied, the New York Civil Liberties Union and James vowed on Wednesday to continue to fight to get the minutes released.

"We continue to believe in the legal and moral case that we have put forward, and will be immediately appealing the decision," James said in a statement.

"We will not give up on our quest for justice and transparency. The public deserves to know what happened with that grand jury and why what we saw with our eyes did not match the failure to indict those responsible for Eric Garner’s death."

Three of the judges also wrote that James did not have power in the city charter to enact reforms on the grand jury proceedings and the roles of District Attorney, while only Leventhal disagreed.

"Contrary to the majority opinion rendered, my office has the authority and responsibility to investigate and litigate wrongdoing by city agencies," James said in a statement.

After Garnett ruled to deny James, the Legal Aid Society, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and the New York Post's motion to disclose minutes and testimony from the grand jury, the parties filed an appeal in May.

Garner, 43, a father of six, died last year after police tried to place him under arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes on a Tompkinsville street. The Medical Examiner later ruled Garner's death a homicide from compression of the neck

Last week, a Manhattan judge ordered the city's NYPD watchdog agency to turn over Pantaleo's disciplinary record.