Judge to weigh releasing grand jury record in NYC chokehold death

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Judge to weigh releasing grand jury record in NYC chokehold death
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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)
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)
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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(Reuters) - A New York judge is due to hear arguments on Monday whether to make public records of a grand jury hearing into the case of an unarmed black man killed after a policeman put him in a chokehold while arresting him for peddling loose cigarettes.

After an unusually lengthy session lasting nine weeks, the grand jury voted in December not to indict the police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, for his role in the death of Eric Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk last summer.

Captured on video, Garner's repeated cries of "I can't breathe!" as Pantaleo holds him by his neck have become a slogan for protesters at rallies across the United States who accuse police forces of being hostile towards black citizens.

The groups asking for the records to be made public say they are expecting a tough legal battle in a case that has drawn the attention of U.S. President Barack Obama and his Justice Department. But, they say, it is important to show how the grand jury came to its conclusion, and possibly expose flaws in the secrecy-shrouded process.

Grand jury proceedings, which are led by the prosecutor, are secret by law. The New York Civil Liberties Union, the city's public advocate, the Legal Aid Society and the New York Post have each filed petitions in State Supreme Court in Staten Island arguing that an exception should be made in the Garner case.

The United States is one of very few countries to still use grand juries to decide whether to indict someone with a crime. The system has come under renewed scrutiny with the cases of Garner and of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager killed by a white police officer last August in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the Brown case, a St. Louis County grand jury voted in November not to indict the officer, Darren Wilson, for killing Brown. In both cases, protesters and some elected officials were angered that there would be no public trials, sparking a new wave of street rallies in recent weeks.

Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU's executive director, said overcoming the presumption of secrecy will be an uphill fight.

"We are all concerned about the failure of a secret process to provide any vehicle for accountability in the case of Eric Garner," Lieberman said. "It has raised serious questions about the ongoing viability of the grand jury process as it is currently structured."

In the case in Ferguson, the county prosecutor decided to publicly release most of the transcripts from the proceedings and evidence he presented to the grand jury.

Daniel Donovan, Jr., the district attorney who handled the Garner case, has said New York's law is tougher than in Missouri, although a judge allowed him to say how many witnesses were called and whether or not they were civilians. His spokesman declined to comment on the petitions, which are before Judge William Garnett.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; editing by Andrew Hay)

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