Appeal filed requesting details from Eric Garner grand jury proceedings

Reuters / Adrees Latif
The New York Civil Liberties Union is asking the state’s Supreme Court to appeal a recent decision declining the release of further details about the grand jury investigation concerning the death of Eric Garner.

On Tuesday, the NYCLU filed an appeal asking the Empire State’s top court to reconsider its request from last year for transcripts, juror instructions, evidence details and other information relevant to the grand jury proceedings conducted in the wake of Garner’s death last August.

State Supreme Court Justice William Garnett ruled against the December request this past March, saying that the NYCLU lacked standing to ask the court to unseal the grand jury records. In the motion filed this week, however, the civil liberties group argues that disclosure must be made, especially in light of recent events in which allegations of police misconduct have raised questions about law enforcement tactics employed from coast to coast.

“First, disclosure is necessary to remedy the blow to public confidence in the criminal justice system caused by the grand jury’s failure to hold any officer responsible for Mr. Garner’s death,” NYCLU attorneys write in the appeal.

READ MORE: NY Judge rejects request to release Eric Garner grand jury records

“Second, disclosure is necessary to inform a debate among the public and elected officials about proposed grand jury reform measures designed to address the perceived problem of the Garner grand jury result—a problem whose very parameters remain unknown.”

Garner died last August after being placed under arrest by New York Police Department officers. Video footage of the incident captured the man gasping, “I can’t breathe,” while being put in a chokehold. A grand jury ultimately declined to indict any of the NYPD officers in his death, prompting NYCLU and others to ask questions about the proceedings. The grand jury documents concerning the hearing remain largely under seal to this day.

“The Garner controversy has provoked a debate about the need for Grand Jury reform. But discussions regarding the need for reform are proceeding without any real understanding of how and why the Grand Jury reached its decision,”
NYCLU Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg said in a statement. “This absence of public information can and should be corrected. In a democracy, decisions about the need and nature of reform should rest upon a fully informed discussion by the electorate and its representatives. To provide for that reasoned decision-making, the general presumption in favor of Grand Jury secrecy should yield to transparency in this case.”

When Garnett rejected the NYCLU’s previous request, he wrote that the plaintiffs had failed to establish a "compelling and particularized need" for the release of the grand jury minutes. He also agreed with prosecutors who said that disclosure could put the safety of witnesses at risk.

READ MORE: New York judge might release Eric Garner grand jury transcripts

"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."

Coupled with the recent highly publicized officer-involved incidents that have involved the deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Michael Brown in Ferguson and many more, Garner’s case has amplified calls for reform in policing practices within the United States.

“Across the country people are coming together to protest the failure of our criminal justice system to value black lives,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said this week. “New York has an opportunity to end the secrecy that has heightened deep-seated suspicions about the criminal justice system’s willingness and commitment to hold police officers accountable when they kill unarmed civilians. We hope the court seizes this moment to provide some much needed transparency for the thousands who continue to demand answers in the streets.”