Secrecy preserved in police chokehold death probe

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Judge Won't Release NYC Chokehold Death Grand Jury Testimony

NEW YORK (AP) -- A push for answers on how a New York City police officer avoided criminal charges in the videotaped chokehold death of Eric Garner has run aground after failing to clear the strict legal bar protecting grand jury secrecy.

State Supreme Court Justice William Garnett ruled on Thursday that the grand jury record would remain under seal, rejecting arguments by the New York Civil Liberties Union and others that the public had a right to know why jurors refused to indict the officer in spite of the video. He wrote that the law required the plaintiffs to establish a "compelling and particularized need" to release the grand jury minutes.

The Staten Island judge's ruling cited a handful of rare instances where New York courts authorized disclosure, but only to specific parties for specific reasons - not out of the public interest.

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Secrecy preserved in police chokehold death probe
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NYPD officers shown arresting Eric Garner in July 2014 in Staten Island.
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 23: The casket carrying Eric Garner is brought out after his funeral outside the Bethel Baptist Church on July 23, 2014 in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced at a recent news conference that there will be a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Garner. The 400-pound, 6-foot-4 asthmatic, Garner (43) died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store for illegally selling cigarettes on July 17th. Garner's death has set off a wave of protests in the city and is being viewed as a test for de Blasio and his more liberal approach to policing New York's streets. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 19: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a promotion ceremony for New York Police Department officers on December 19, 2014 in New York City. The promotions come on the heels of weeks of protests in New York over the decision of a Staten Island, New York grand jury decision not to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Esaw Garner, wife of Eric Garner, is helped off the stage by Rev. Herbert Daughtry, center left, and her daughter Emerald Garner, right, after breaking down during a rally at the National Action Network headquarters for Eric Garner, Saturday, July 19, 2014, in New York. Garner, 43, died Thursday, during an arrest in Staten Island, when a plain-clothes police officer placed him in what appeared be a choke hold while several others brought him to the ground and struggled to place him in handcuffs. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Esaw Garner, wife of Eric Garner, left, cries alongside her daughter Emerald Garner during a rally at the National Action Network headquarters for Eric Garner, Saturday, July 19, 2014, in New York. Garner, 43, died Thursday, during an arrest in Staten Island, when a plain-clothes police officer placed him in what appeared be a choke hold while several others brought him to the ground and struggled to place him in handcuffs. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - JULY 23: People and relatives of Eric Garner, died on a city street after NYPD cops put him in a banned chokehold, attend the funeral ceremony at Bethel Baptist Church in New York's Brooklyn, United States on July 23, 2014. Human rights committees and Afro-American people react to the event as others want peace during the funeral. Garner, 43, died on July 17 as cops tried to cuff him for allegedly selling bootleg cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk. (Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 23: Fiends of Eric protest after his funeral outside the Bethel Baptist Church on July 23, 2014 in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced at a recent news conference that there will be a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Garner. The 400-pound, 6-foot-4 asthmatic, Garner (43) died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store for illegally selling cigarettes on July 17th. Garner's death has set off a wave of protests in the city and is being viewed as a test for de Blasio and his more liberal approach to policing New York's streets. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 23: The casket containing the body of Eric Garner is moved from Bethel Baptist Church during his funeral service on July 23, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Garner, 43, died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store on Staten Island for illegally selling cigarettes. (Photo by James Keivom-Pool/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 23: A child holds up a sign outside of the Bethel Baptist Church before the funeral for Eric Garner on July 23, 2014 in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced at a recent news conference that there will be a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Garner. The 400-pound, 6-foot-4 asthmatic, Garner (43) died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store for illegally selling cigarettes on July 17th. Garner's death has set off a wave of protests in the city and is being viewed as a test for de Blasio and his more liberal approach to policing New York's streets. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 23: Mourners pay their respects at the funeral service for Eric Garner held at Bethel Baptist Church on July 23, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Garner, 43, died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store on Staten Island for illegally selling cigarettes. (Photo by Julia Xanthos-POOL/Getty Images)
People gather outside the funeral service for Eric Garner at the Bethel Baptist Church in Brooklyn July 23, 2014. Eric Garner, 43, died last week as police tried to cuff him for allegedly selling bootleg cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk. AFP PHOTO / Timothy A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, left, listens as Congresswoman Yvette Clarke speaks during a press conference outside police headquarters on Thursday Aug. 14, 2014 in New York. Members of New York's congressional delegation are asking the Justice Department to formally investigate last month's police custody death of Eric Garner and the law enforcement strategy known as "broken windows." The strategy is based on the idea that fighting smaller crimes like drinking in public discourages more dangerous behavior. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Members of Congress, Yvette Clarke, far left, Hakeem Jeffries, second from left, and Gregory Meeks, center, hold a press conference outside police headquarters on Thursday Aug. 14, 2014 in New York. Members of New York's congressional delegation are asking the Justice Department to formally investigate last month's police custody death of Eric Garner and the law enforcement strategy known as "broken windows." The strategy is based on the idea that fighting smaller crimes like drinking in public discourages more dangerous behavior. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, left, listens as Congressman Hakeem Jeffries speaks during a press conference outside police headquarters on Thursday Aug. 14, 2014 in New York. Members of New York's congressional delegation are asking the Justice Department to formally investigate last month's police custody death of Eric Garner and the law enforcement strategy known as "broken windows." The strategy is based on the idea that fighting smaller crimes like drinking in public discourages more dangerous behavior. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
FILE - In this July 22, 2014 file photo demonstrators march toward New York's 120th Precinct following a vigil demanding justice for Eric Garner, a Staten Island man who died while being arrested by New York City police. The shooting of an unarmed black teen by Ferguson, Mo., police over the weekend has drawn comparisons to high-profile racially charged deaths of black men and teens around the country. Garner died following a racially-charged incident that included amateur video, one showing an officer putting the 350-pound asthmatic in a choke hold after he refused to be handcuffed. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
FILE - In this July 19, 2014 file photo Esaw Garner, center, wife of Eric Garner, breaks down in the arms of Rev. Herbert Daughtry and Rev. Rev. Al Sharpton, right, during a rally in New York. The shooting of an unarmed black teen by Ferguson, Mo., police over the weekend has drawn comparisons to high-profile racially charged deaths of black men and teens around the country. Garner died following a racially-charged incident that included amateur video, one showing an officer putting the 350-pound asthmatic in a choke hold after he refused to be handcuffed. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
Eric Garner's widow, Esaw, left and mother Gwen Carr, center, listen as Rev. Al Sharpton speaks during a rally, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, in New York. Sharpton addressed the medical examiner's report that came Friday saying Garner's death was caused by a chokehold while in police custody, a banned police maneuver. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Gwen Carr, left, mother of Eric Garner, speaks as Rev. Al Sharpton looks on during a rally, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, in New York. The rally was held to address the medical examiner's report that came Friday saying Garner's death was caused by a chokehold, a banned police maneuver. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Rev. Al Sharpton speaks during a rally, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, in New York. The rally was held to address the medical examiner's report which came Friday saying that Eric Garner's death was caused by a chokehold, a banned police maneuver. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
A woman listens as Rev. Al Sharpton speaks during a rally at the National Action Network, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, in New York. The rally was held to address the medical examiner's report which came Friday saying that Eric Garner's death was caused by a chokehold, a banned police maneuver. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Earline Skates listens during a rally at the National Action Network, Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, in New York. The rally was held to address the medical examiner's report which came Friday saying that Eric Garner's death was caused by a chokehold, a banned police maneuver. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
A young boy stops as he passes a makeshift memorial for Eric Garner, Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, in the Staten Island borough of New York. Garner was put in a chokehold while being arrested at the site last month for selling untaxed loose cigarettes. On Friday, the medical examiner ruled Garner's death to be a homicide caused by a police chokehold. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
A hand made sign hangs at a makeshift memorial for Eric Garner, Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, in the Staten Island borough of New York. Garner died after he was put in a chokehold while being arrested last month for selling untaxed loose cigarettes. On Friday, the medical examiner ruled Garner's death to be a homicide caused by a police chokehold. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
A passer-by stops to take a photo of a makeshift memorial for Eric Garner, Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, in the Staten Island borough of New York. Garner died after he was put in a chokehold while being arrested at the site last month for selling untaxed loose cigarettes. On Friday, the medical examiner ruled Garner's death to be a homicide caused by a police chokehold. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Candles, flowers, stuffed animals and cigarettes lay at a makeshift memorial for Eric Garner, Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, in the Staten Island borough of New York. Garner died after he was put in a chokehold while being arrested last month for selling untaxed loose cigarettes. On Friday, the medical examiner ruled Garner's death to be a homicide caused by a police chokehold. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Doug Phaneuf hands a newspaper to a pedestrian while offering information to passers-by about a rally for Eric Garner, Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, in the Staten Island borough of New York. Garner died after he was put in a chokehold while being arrested last month for selling untaxed loose cigarettes. On Friday, the medical examiner ruled Garner's death to be a homicide caused by a police chokehold. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 15: A memorial of Michael Brown, 18, next to the one of Eric Garner, is viewed outside of filmmaker's Spike Lee's 40 Acres offices on August 15, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Both men were recently killed by police officers in situations that remain murky and which have set off protests and demonstrations around the country. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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For example, a 2012 appeals court ruling authorized release of bank records from a grand jury proceeding to someone seeking a civil judgment against the United Arab Emirates. Another ruling in 1978 turned over witness statements to state police for disciplinary proceedings. A 2001 decision even gave the son of a defendant in a decades-old murder case access to grand jury minutes to use for a movie script.

At a hearing in February, Garnett had asked over and over how the Garner grand jury minutes would be used.

"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."

The effort to make the Garner grand jury record public had been considered a longshot. But the decision comes amid an ongoing debate over whether the laws need revisions promoting more transparency, particularly when it involves police shootings.

By preserving secrecy in the Garner case, the court "has reinforced the distrust many New Yorkers already feel toward the performance of the criminal justice system in this case," said NYCLU legal director Arthur Eisenberg.

Officer Daniel Pantaleo and other officers had stopped Garner last summer on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. A video shot by an onlooker 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 heavyset Garner, who had asthma, is heard on the tape gasping, "I can't breathe." He loses consciousness and died at a hospital.

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 Pantaleo, and dozens of 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 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.

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.

The judge agreed that the argument "is particularly cogent in `high publicity cases' where the witnesses' truthful and accurate testimony is vital." Garnett wrote: "It is in such notorious cases that witnesses' cooperation and honesty should be encouraged - not discouraged - for fear of disclosure."

The decision by the Staten Island grand jurors, he added, "was theirs alone, after having heard all of the evidence, having been instructed on law and having deliberated. Their collective decision should not be impeached by the unbridled speculation that the integrity of this grand jury was impaired in any way."

Jonathan Moore, who represents Garner's family, called the ruling misguided.

"We think this grand jury process was deeply flawed," he said. "We think the ability for the public to see what that process was like would have been an important step in understanding what happened here."

Donovan said Thursday his office would respect "and will adhere to Judge Garnett's well-reasoned decision."

The parties, which also include the Legal Aid Society, Public Advocate's office, New York Post and the NAACP, are appealing.

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