A judge on Thursday refused to release testimony heard by a grand jury that declined to indict a police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, arguing there wasn't a good enough reason to release the confidential information.
The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and others asked the court to order Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan to release the grand jury transcript, including the testimony of the officer involved, Daniel Pantaleo, and dozens of witnesses, detailed descriptions of evidence and other documentation. A similar step was taken by the prosecutor in Ferguson, Missouri, when a grand jury there decided not to indict an officer in the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Both Garner and Brown were black; the officers involved are white. The deaths sparked nationwide protests about the treatment of communities of color by law enforcement and a debate about the role of race in policing.
The effort to make public the Garner grand jury record was considered a long shot, given that New York laws explicitly bar disclosure, absent a court order. But the decision comes amid an ongoing debate over whether the laws should be revised to provide more transparency in the process, particularly when it involves police shootings.
Civil liberties lawyers argued that the public needed to reconcile the widely watched video of the arrest with the decision not to indict the officer involved.
Donovan argued that the disclosure would damage the credibility of prosecutors seeking to assure both grand jurors and witnesses that details of their participation would be kept from public view. After the grand jury's decision, Donovan asked for some information to be made public, but that didn't include testimony or exhibits shown to jurors.
The proponents of release claimed Donovan was duplicitous for going to court to ask for a partial disclosure of details like the number of witnesses, only to turn around and argue against the release of more meaningful information like testimony and prosecutors' instructions to the grand jury.
The law requires the NYCLU and the other parties that brought the lawsuit to establish a "compelling and particularized need" to release the grand jury minutes, the judge wrote.
"What would they use the minutes for? The only answer which the court heard was the possibility of effecting legislative change," he wrote. "That proffered need is purely speculative and does not satisfy the requirements of the law."
Pantaleo and other officers stopped Garner on July 17 on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. A video shot by an onlooker and widely watched online shows Garner telling the officers to leave him alone and refusing to be handcuffed.
Pantaleo responded by wrapping his arm around Garner's neck in what he said was a sanctioned takedown move and not a banned chokehold. The heavy-set Garner, who had asthma, is heard on the tape gasping, "I can't breathe." He later was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press