Several attorneys, including a lawyer for the city's public advocate, pressed for the release of grand jury proceedings in the Eric Garner case on Thursday, arguing the minutes could help to reform the criminal justice system.
A group of organizations, including the NYCLU, the Legal Aid Society and Public Advocate Letitia James, argued in a Staten Island court that the grand jury declining to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo, for the cellphone-recorded death of Garner, was a unique case where unsealing the records would both inform legislative reform and help aid the public's faith in the criminal justice system.
"This case has clearly become a catalyst for widespread discussions for reform," said Matthew Brinckerhoff, representing James. "This is not a run of the mill case. You can't reform a system if you don't know what went wrong with it."
In December the grand jury voted not to indict Pantaleo after nine weeks of deliberations. Garner, 43, died July 17 after Pantaleo held him in an apparent chokehold during a confrontation when police tried to arrest him for allegedly selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. The decision set off a string of protests concerning racism throughout the city, with many arguing that Pantaleo, who is white, unfairly targeted Garner, who was black.
Garner's daughter, Erica Garner, said she was suspicious about what the grand jury was allowed to hear.
"My family really wants to know what was said and presented in that court room," Garner said. "I would like to get more information -- more than what I can get offline or on TV. I want to know minute-by-minute what was said and the evidence that was presented in my father's case and how they represented my father."
The arguments took an emotional toll on Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, who wiped her eyes with a tissue several times during the nearly four-hour hearing with Judge William Garnett.
Assistant District Attorney Anne Grady, with Staten Island DA and congressional candidate Daniel Donovan sitting by her side, said the minutes won't help "lay people" glean any enlightening information and could undermine the DA's efforts with witnesses testifying in future grand juries.
"Anyone looking through these transcripts because they want to find evidence of guilt will likely find it. Anyone looking through these transcripts because they want to find evidence of innocence will likely find it," said Grady, deputy chief of the appeals bureau. "Any disclosure based on the arguments here would set a dangerous precedent."
Judge Garnett did not say when he would make his decision, but said the events in Ferguson, Missouri, where a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer who shot to death a black 18-year-old, Michael Brown, would have no bearing on it. In that case the district attorney released a large amount of information from the grand jury, including testimony from the officer involved in that shooting, under Missouri's Sunshine Law, which allows records from public governmental bodies to be released to the public.
In December, a judge released limited information about the Garner grand jury, including that there were 50 witnesses and 60 exhibits presented.
The attorneys who testified in front of Judge William Garnett raised other issues, including the possibility that Pantaleo received preferential treatment, and the idea that there should be a special prosecutor assigned to future cases involving officers.