Transcripts of trials and hearings as well as investigations can enable even laypeople to decipher whether the case was dealt with in the right manner. In cases of public interest, the demand to get these records public is often intense.
The Eric Garner arrest that resulted in his tragic death is said to have elements of racism, especially since the white officer responsible is believed to not have been indicted accordingly. That resulted in vast public outcry demanding the release of the grand jury records regarding the officer’s investigation.
Outcry against Grand Jury Proceedings
The NYCLU (New York Civil Liberties Union) blamed the decision of the grand jury to not indict Daniel Pantaleo – the NYPD officer who was seen on witness video to have grabbed Garner by the neck in a fatal chokehold – for the outcry. The actions of the officer are reason enough, according to the NYCLU, for the investigation to be transparent. It believes that disclosure of the transcripts of jury proceedings is required for the public to have its confidence in America’s criminal justice system restored. As things stand, the grand jury is even perceived by some to be an instrument of injustice.
The Case for the Release of Records
The arguments were heard by a New York state judge William E. Garnett early in February 2015 regarding whether the records need to be released. The Legal Aid Society, the primary public defender of New York City, argued through its attorney that there was a questioning of the fairness of the manner in which the grand jury was presented with the evidence by the office of Staten Island’s District Attorney Daniel Donovan. The Legal Aid Society also noted that Pantaleo’s grand jury investigation took nine weeks and contained the testimonies of 59 witnesses. The release of the transcripts is demanded for the public to determine whether special treatment was meted out to Pantaleo.
Hurdles against the Release
Donovan’s office had argued for the records to remain sealed, citing the reason that the grand jury witnesses had testified on the assurance of secrecy. It also suggested that publicizing their testimonies would result in "harassment or retaliation". Moreover, the state of New York also has tougher rules barring release of any kind of grand jury document. In striking contrast was the state of Missouri which, in the incident of a white policeman fatally shooting a black teenager, released grand jury transcripts. New York state regulations demand a compelling reason to be brought forth for the disclosure of the records.
New York City and Garner’s family await Judge Garnett’s final ruling on the petition, while the discussions of a grand jury reform are gathering steam.