If Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan had his way, the transcripts from the grand jury that acquitted a New York police officer in the death of Eric Garner would be kept under wraps.
But the New York Civil Liberties Union, among others, on Thursday formally asked Judge William Garnett to unseal the records, as many are still seeking answers as to why Officer Daniel Pantaleo wasn’t charged in Mr Garner’s death.
The NYCLU says in court papers that the judge should make the records public “to restore public confidence in our criminal justice system and to inform the current debate that has begun regarding the role of the grand jury as an instrument of justice or injustice”.
Mr Donovan has said he sides with the law, which has traditionally kept police records secret in the state of New York, according to the New York Times.
The circumstances surrounding Mr Garner’s death and the reaction to the grand jury’s decision – which set off protests bordering on riots when it was announced in December – has left many feeling like the transcripts of testimony and juror deliberation should be public.
Grand juries are legal bodies formed to conduct criminal proceedings and determine whether or not criminal charges should be brought.
Mr Garner was approached by police last July on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes, a crime in the US. Video of the run-in shows Mr Garner resisting officers’ attempts to put him in handcuffs, at which point Mr Pantaleo wrapped his arm around Mr Garner’s neck and brought him to the ground. In the video, Mr Garner can be heard saying “I can’t breathe” repeatedly.
Mr Garner was taken to the hospital following the altercation, where he died as a result of asthma and other health problems. His death – along with the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer – raised questions of police tactics and race relations. Both Mr Garner and Mr Brown were black and the officers were white.
The controversy came to a boiling point late last year after both grand juries acquitted the officers involved in both deaths. The prosecutor in the Ferguson case voluntarily released grand jury transcripts, adding to the calls for the New York prosecutor to do the same.
A spokeswoman for the NYCLU said she would expect Judge Garnett to make a decision on releasing within six weeks, though she said it could be sooner.
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