Judge rules to keep Eric Garner grand jury records sealed


A New York State Supreme Court judge ruled on Thursday to keep sealed the grand jury minutes in the chokehold homicide of Eric Garner.

The ruling was issued by Justice William Garnett in response to five cases that had been consolidated into one proceeding.  The five plaintiffs seeking the unsealing of the minutes of the grand jury proceedings were Letitia James (D-New York City), the city's Public Advocate ; the Legal Aid Society ; the New York Civil Liberties Union ; and the joint parties of the Staten Island Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or the NAACP, and the New York State Conference of Branches of the NAACP.

The ruling indicated that a court could release grand jury records, but only if a plaintiff demonstrated a "compelling and particularized need" for such disclosure of proceedings that are generally accorded secrecy under the New York State constitution. 

In Justice Garnett's analysis, the arguments made by the five plaintiffs failed to meet the legal threshold to release the grand jury minutes.  

In respect of the request made by the office of Public Advocate James, Justice Garnett reasoned that the Public Advocate's Office did not have a role in criminal matters and that, contrary to the Public Advocate's request to use the grand jury minutes to review and analyze information about police misconduct, the Public Advocate's Office could exert powers of oversight concerning possible excessive use of force by police in accordance with the powers already ascribed to her office.



Referring a widely-viewed smartphone video documenting Mr. Garner's chokehold homicide, Justice Garnett wrote, "Besides the tape in this case, the Public Advocate, as a monitor of city agencies, has access to the records of the Department of Investigation, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the Police Department and the City's Law Department which litigates federal lawsuits against police officers charged with the use of excessive force and other misconduct.  Thus, the Public Advocate has a plethora of sources from which the Advocate can glean evidence to support her positions regarding the policing of the criminal law in New York City," implying, perhaps, that the Public Advocate's Office had to be reminded to exert her numerous existing powers and authorities in the realm of police oversight. 

After Justice Garnett's ruling was issued, Public Advocate James announced that she would be immediately appealing the decision.

"We believe that the public has the right to know what happened here behind closed doors," Public Advocate James said, in part, in a statement, adding that, "In order to have an effective criminal justice system we need to trust that the system is fair.  And I can think of no better compelling and particularized need than the need to show that the process was balanced and fair."

Mr. Garner died after New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo placed Mr. Garner in a chokehold.  The city's medical examiner's office later ruled Mr. Garner's death to be a homicide.

After Mr. Garner's death, many elected officials raced to defend the NYPD's controversial policing tactics, known by a theory called "Broken Windows," which deliberately targets communities of color and low-income communities.

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Harlem) said that she would not say that race was a factor in Mr. Garner's homicide, even though Broken Windows policing deliberately guides police officers to target people of color.  Later, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City) would go on to vehemently defend Broken Windows policing

However, controversy would continue to grow around the Garner case.

According to a report broadcast by WNBC Channel 4 News, District Attorney Daniel Donovan (R-Staten Island) only asked the grand jury reviewing the Garner case to consider manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide charges against NYPD Officer Pantaleo.  D.A. Donovan failed to ask the grand jury to consider a lesser charge of reckless engagement.  Since the grand jury was only given higher thresholds to meet, the grand jury voted not to file charges against NYPD Officer Pantaleo.

D.A. Donovan's omission only added to the accusations made by activists that the judicial system in New York City has failed in its responsibility to prosecute cases of officer-involved brutality and homicide.

After D.A. Donovan raised his profile across New York City after the Garner case, he announced his political campaign to replace former U.S. Representative Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island), who resigned after pleading guilty to tax evasion charges.

Officer-involved homicides, including those of Mr. Garner on Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, inspired a nation-wide #BlackLivesMatter social movement, drawing attention and expressing resistance to policing policies that appeared to discriminate against minority and low-income communities.

In spite of explicit race-based biases in policing by the NYPD, D.A. Donovan has asserted that he doesn't want any protesters to raise the issue of race during his Congressional campaign. 

The protest movement following the Garner case roiled the city for months after Mr. Garner's homicide, placing Mayor de Blasio in the politically impossible position of choosing between supporting his police department or making good on his campaign promise to end race-based policing.  After the NYPD staged protests that embarrassed the mayor, including turning their backs to him and flying plane-pulled protest banners over Manhattan, Mayor de Blasio chose to support the NYPD at the expense of NYPD reform.

To further appease the NYPD, Mayor de Blasio predictably expressed support for D.A. Donovan, saying, in part, that should D.A. Donovan win the Congressional race, then D.A. Donovan would be a better public official than former U.S. Representative Grimm.

Controversies over the excessive use of force by NYPD reached a boiling point after Mr. Garner's homicide, especially after data showed the relentless nature of officer-involved homicides.  In an analysis of 15 years worth of interactions between police and community, reporters at The New York Daily News showed that encounters between NYPD officers and citizens have resulted in 179 fatalities. Incredibly, only three police officers were ever indicted in respect of the 179 fatalities, the analysis showed.

In response to the extensive documentation of the excessive use of force, the prevalence of corruption, and other misconduct by the NYPD, some of the city's police officers were exposed making deceptive and fraudulent changes to Wikipedia entries about police misconduct, including in the Garner case, in efforts described to deliberately downplay police misconduct.  Like for officers, who kill innocent or unarmed New Yorkers, the officers, who entered deceptive amendments to Wikipedia entries about cases of police misconduct, would not face discipline, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton announced on Monday, according to a report in The New York Daily News.

Even before NYPD Commissioner Bratton was sworn in by Mayor de Blasio, some grassroots police reform activists have been critical of his appointment, with some calling for Commissioner Bratton to resign.  Police reform activists have generally agreed to call for an end to the neoconservative Broken Windows approach to policing, but they are divided about how to achieve that end result.  Some police reform groups are loyal to Mayor de Blasio and do not wish to embarrass the mayor in order to hold him true to his central campaign promise to end race-based policing.  Other activists have called for a new commission, this time with both subpoena power and the authority to prosecute its own cases, to investigate the NYPD, including its Internal Affairs Bureau, for systemic misconduct.

Police reform activists have complained that many prominent members of the New York legal community are in denial about police officers using excessive and sometimes deadly force with impunity on innocent or unarmed New Yorkers.  Retired Justice Milton Mollen told Progress Queens that he did not see any problem with a lack of accountability at the NYPD, whilst U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara told Progress Queens that he did not think the NYPD needed any more outside monitors.

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