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Judge rebukes DA over sealing Eric Garner grand jury testimony

A Staten Island judge denied the request to release testimony in March
Public Advocate Leticia James after Tuesday's hearing. Wendy Joan Biddlecombe, Metro

The lawyers arguing to keep secret details of the Eric Garner grand jury hearing came under strong questioning Tuesday by appellate court judges, who are tasked with deciding whether to unseal testimony.

Several outlets reported that a judge went as far as to ask whether prosecutors were using the sealing of the grand jury testimony to gloss over the fact that they hadn't been unable to obtain indictments of the police officer who delivered the fatal chokehold to Garner.

"Your office seems to have wanted to put a very pretty gloss on what happened and kind of sweep everything under the rug and use grand jury secrecy as its protection," Judge Leonard Austin reportedly said to lawyers representing the Staten Island District Attorney's office.

The appellate court heard arguments from the public advocate's office, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Aid Society, who are calling for certain information from the Eric Garner grand jury decision be unsealed.

Garner died last July while being placed under arrest after police officers stopped the Staten Island man on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes. NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who put Garner in the fatal chokehold, was not indicted on murder charges by a Staten Island grand jury last December.

A Staten Island judge denied the request in March to release grand jury testimony.

“The secrecy of the grand jury is not absolute,” said Public Advocate Leticia James, speaking outside the Brooklyncourthouse after the hearing. “Secrecy breeds suspicion, and sunshine really is the best.”

James said her office, and the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Aid Society, who are also petitioning the court, are not asking for the correspondence between the grand jury and former Richmond County District Attorney DanielDonovan,who was elected to Congress in May, and Pantaleo’s testimony.

“We are not seeking to divulge the identity of any of the witnesses,” James said, adding she was troubled by witnesses' accounts in a recent New York Times article that “suggested the testimony of individuals was tailored for a particular outcome.”

In the story, "Beyond the Chokehold: The Path to Eric Garner's Death," witness Rodney Lee, who owns a beauty store in front of where Garner was taken to the ground, said thegrand jury seemed uninterested and didn't ask him any questions. Another witness told the Times a prosecutor told her she couldn't tell jurors that Garner was put in a chokehold.

Grand jury proceedings have been historically kept secret. The NYPD’s Civilian Complaint Board is also seeking the grand jury testimony for their internal investigation, according to the New York Times.

During the hearing, Justice John Leventhal asked why the Garner grand jury was being looked at in particular in order to change the system.

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