Appeals court hears arguments over Eric Garner grand jury record

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N.J. Burkett has the story from Brooklyn. (WABC)

An appeals court is revisiting the issue of whether the grand jury record in the Eric Garner chokehold death case should stay sealed.

The three-judge panel heard arguments Tuesday in Brooklyn.

A judge on Staten Island had ruled in March that the records would remain under seal. The parties seeking the release of the minutes appealed. They include the New York Civil Liberties Union, Legal Aid Society and the Public Advocate's office.

Officer Daniel Pantaleo and other officers had stopped Garner last summer on suspicion of illegal cigarette sales. A video from an onlooker shows that in the course of taking Garner into custody, Pantaleo wrapped his arm around Garner's neck. Garner, who had asthma, was heard on the tape gasping, "I can't breathe." He lost consciousness and died.

Civil rights attorneys insisted that the grand jury that saw the video and weighed the evidence in the death of Eric Garner was a charade. "Secrecy for secrecy's sake doesn't promote anything," said NAACP attorney James Meyerson.

Attorneys for the NAACP, the Public Advocate and others are appealing the lower court decision not to release the secret grand jury testimony.

The NYCLU and others had asked the court to order Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan to release the grand jury transcript, including the testimony of the officer and dozens of witnesses, detailed descriptions of evidence and other documentation.

State Supreme Court Justice William Garnett ruled the plaintiffs would have had to establish a "compelling and particularized need" for the release, and that their arguments that it was in the public interest didn't meet that standard.

The death of Garner, who was black, at the involvement of a white officer was among the cases that sparked a nationwide debate about how police and communities of color interact.

Protesters took to the streets of New York and in cities across the nation after the grand jurors, seated on Staten Island, declined to indict any of the officers who subdued Garner in July 2014.

Critics want to understand why.

"They say democracy dies behind closed doors, but it is also true that justice also dies behind closed doors," said Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

"Why not let the public know what happened?", said an appeals court justice.

Assistant D.A. Anne Grady insisted that the sheer volume of testimony from 50 witnesses is so great that critics and supporters alike will find evidence to support their own agendas.

"That is not going to meaningfully inform any debate, and it's not going to do anything to restore public confidence in the system," said Grady.

The justices heard two hours of testimony and adjourned after two hours without handing down a decision. They have the power to order the transcripts released, and a ruling could come at any time.

(Some information from the Associated Press.)
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