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New York Court Asked To Release Details In Eric Garner Case

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- A judge will soon decide whether to unseal the secret grand jury proceedings in the Eric Garner case, two months after a grand jury declined to press criminal charges in Garner's police-involved death.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and other petitioners have gone to court to demand that Judge William Garnett open the record in the Garner case -- a position opposed by Richmond County District Attorney Daniel Donovan.

"Transparency is better than secrecy. Light is better than darkness," said Arthur Eisenberg, legal director of the NYCLU.

New York Court Asked To Release Details In Eric Garner Case

As CBS2's Sonia Rincon reported, protesters at the courthouse in Staten Island supported the message.

"What were the charges that were presented to the grand jury?" said city Public Advocate Letitia James. "Was it one charge? The charge of murder?"

James said the world saw the video and the protests, and that is why the factors that went into the grand jury's decision also needs to be part of the public domain.

"There were 50 witnesses presented. Were they all police officers?" James said. "Who were the experts that presented the evidence to the grand jurors? Who interpreted the law?"

In court Thursday, the NYCLU, Legal Aid, the NAACP, the New York Post and James each presented their own arguments.

The NYCLU in court papers cited the outcry over the grand jury's decision not to indict NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo -- who is seen on a widely-watched video putting the unarmed Garner in what the medical examiner called a fatal chokehold -- as a compelling reason to make an exception to the long-standing practice of keeping the process secret.

Disclosure is needed "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,'' the NYCLU argues in the court papers.

Garner's family also wants more information.

"I want to know, minute by minute, what was said, and the evidence that was presented in my father's case, and how they represented my father," Garner's daughter, Erica Garner, told reporters including 1010 WINS' Al Jones and WCBS 880's Peter Haskell.

The Staten Island DA's office did not comment beyond its testimony, saying grand jury proceedings are secret by law and witnesses and jurors expect to have their identities protected.

Donovan's office has argued that grand jury witnesses came forward and testified "with full assurances of secrecy.'' Making their testimony public, the papers argue, would bring an "inevitable result of harassment or retaliation.''

Eric Garner Grand Jury Protest
Protesters on Feb. 5, 2015, call for details of grand jury proceedings in the Eric Garner case to be unsealed. (credit: Sonia Rincon/CBS2)

The DA also said releasing the information in the Garner case could discourage future juries and witnesses.

But Eisenberg said this case is very different.

"That concern can be satisfied simply by having the court explain, in the opinion granting disclosure, that disclosure is a rare thing, and that in the vast majority of case going forward, grand jury secrecy will continue," he said.

But Donovan said the secrecy of a grand jury proceeding is protected by the New York Constitution and it would take an amendment to change that.

New York Court Asked To Release Details In Eric Garner Case

The New York City Medical Examiner's office ruled Garner's death a homicide, caused by the officer's apparent chokehold as well as chest and neck compressions and prone positioning "during physical restraint by police."

Police union officials and Pantaleo's lawyer have said the cop used an authorized takedown move, not a chokehold -- which is banned under NYPD policy -- and that Garner's poor health was a main cause of his death.

In December, the grand jury's decision not to indict Pantaleo set off nationwide protests and triggered immediate calls for the grand jury records to be unsealed.

The NYCLU and others have asked the court to order Donovan to release the grand jury transcript, including the testimony of Pantaleo and dozens of other witnesses, detailed descriptions of evidence and other documentation. A similar step was voluntarily taken by the prosecutor in Ferguson, Missouri, when a grand jury there refused to indict an officer in the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.

The Staten Island prosecutor's papers question the decision in Missouri, arguing that even though the names of witnesses were blacked out, news outlets compromised their anonymity by seeking "to analyze the transcripts with an eye toward criticizing the witnesses in a manner that would be obvious to at least the witnesses themselves as well as those familiar with the involvement in the case.''

Such disclosure would "almost certainly have a chilling effect on the very type of witness cooperation that is most desired and the most difficult to obtain,'' the papers add.

The attorneys from all five parties looking for this disclosure agreed that is not about who the grand jurors were or even why they did what they did. It's about whether or not the District Attorney presented the case to them fairly, attorneys said.

The judge did not say when he would file his decision. But he did say he has not read the grand jury minutes in the Garner case.

If the judge decides not to unseal the transcripts, James said she and all the other parties involved will appeal.

(TM and © Copyright 2015 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2015 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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