STATEN ISLAND — The push to release minutes from the Eric Garner grand jury continued Tuesday as several groups filed an appeal in the state's highest court to overturn a Staten Island judge's decision to keep the records sealed.
Public Advocate Letitia James, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), the Legal Aid Society, the NAACP and the New York Post filed a motion in an Albany Appellate court to overturn Judge William Garnett's decision to keep the records secret, which was denied last month in a Brooklyn court.
“New Yorkers have insisted on reform since the Eric Garner Grand Jury decision, and they and their representatives need to know what, if anything, is broken before they attempt to fix the problem,” said Arthur Eisenberg, legal director for the NYCLU, in a statement.
“Without understanding how or why the Grand Jury reached its decision, major policy discussions on grand jury reform with potentially lasting implications are taking place blindly."
In January, the groups first filed a motion in a Staten Island court to unseal the minutes and testimony from the grand jury proceedings, who ruled not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Garner, 43, after he was arrested for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes last year.
They argued that the release — with witnesses' names redacted — would help the public understand how the 23-person grand jury came to their ruling, even though Pantaleo was caught on video putting Garner in an apparent chokehold and wrestling him to the ground while he pleaded "I can't breathe" numerous times.
James' lawyers also said the release would help the public advocate make reforms to the grand jury process in New York.
Garnett sided with then District Attorney Dan Donovan to keep the records secret, saying the parties did not establish a clear need for release and it could put the witnesses in jeopardy.
"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."
The parties then filed an appeal in a Brooklyn Appellate court, but the four judge panel denied the appeal in July, ruling the advocates did not provide a sufficient need to break the secrecy of a grand jury and 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."