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New York chief judge calls for grand jury reforms after chokehold case

By Daniel Wiessner

ALBANY, N.Y. (Reuters) - Responding to outrage over a grand jury's decision against indicting a New York City police officer for killing an unarmed black man with a chokehold, the state's top judge on Tuesday proposed giving courts unprecedented authority over grand jury proceedings involving police.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman of the New York Court of Appeals said in his annual address in Albany that the public's trust in the justice system had been shaken by the secretive proceedings that did not lead to indictments in the cases of the NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner and an officer in Ferguson, Missouri, who shot and killed an unarmed black teen last year.

Lippman said he would soon submit a bill to the state legislature that would require judges to preside over grand jury proceedings in cases involving allegations of homicide or felony assault against police officers.

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Such oversight, he said, would be a check on the outsized role of prosecutors in grand jury proceedings, giving the public greater confidence in the process.

Currently, judges may play a supervisory role when grand juries convene but are not present in the courtroom and do not get involved unless the jurors ask for guidance.

The United States is one of the only countries to still use grand juries to indict people for crimes. The practice has come under renewed scrutiny due to the cases of Garner and Michael Brown, the victim in the Ferguson shooting.

Lippman's proposal, which would give judges the ability to question witnesses, block evidence they find inadmissible and give instructions to jurors before they deliberate, could come under fire from the state's district attorneys.

Prosecutors have generally defended the current system despite claims that their close relationship with local police departments makes it difficult for them to remain impartial in cases where officers may face criminal charges.

Lippman's proposal would also create a presumption that grand jury records would be released in cases of "significant public interest," even if no charges are brought.

The judge's call for grand jury reform comes after Governor Andrew Cuomo last month said he would appoint a special monitor to review cases in which grand juries choose not to indict police officers.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, meanwhile, has asked Cuomo to grant his office the authority to prosecute police who kill unarmed civilians.

(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi)