New York City public advocate and former public defender Letitia James is among a group of citizens petitioning the Staten Island court that presided over the Eric Garner grand jury to let more transparency into its proceedings.
In December, a grand jury declined to indict police officer Daniel Panteleo, who placed a chokehold on Garner while arresting him for selling loose cigarettes, leading to his death.
Grand jury proceedings in New York State are secret. But James and others are now saying the public deserves access to the Garner grand jury’s transcripts and minutes, given the case’s pivotal role in the national conversation on policing and the fairness of the criminal justice system.
“Secrecy breeds suspicion,” James said during an interview on the Brian Lehrer Show Friday. “We need to know why the indictment was not handed down. What was the process like, what were the charges, the interpretation of law, who were the witnesses, what were the physical evidence the grand jury looked at? That’s what we’re looking to unseal.”
She will be giving oral arguments next week at a court hearing on her petition to release the transcripts. Her petition is joined by the New York Civil Liberties, the Legal Aid Society, and the New York Post.
During Friday’s interview, James criticized Staten Island district attorney Daniel Donovan for not releasing more information about the grand jury proceedings. Under state law, Donovan can request the court to release information about the grand jury case. In December, after the grand jury declined to deliver an indictment, a judge had granted Donovan’s request to release limited information about witnesses who testified and pieces of evidence the grand jury examined.
But James said that Donovan should have revealed more. Based on several videos taken by bystanders during Pantaleo and Garner’s encounter—where Garner is heard complaining that he can’t breathe 11 times—James said reckless endangerment should’ve been a charge the jury considered.
Grand juries only determine whether there’s a probable cause to charge the defendant, not whether the defendant is guilty. Under the state penal code, reckless endangerment that has a risk for death is a Class D felony, which is punishable up to seven years in prison.
James also said that while she welcomed governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to allow prosecutors to issue a public report on grand juries that return a non-indictment for police-involved fatalities, she wants to go a step further and allow a special prosecutor to take on those cases.
Ultimately, James feels more transparency leads to a fairer justice system. “Government works best in the sunshine. The new judge should unseal the grand jury minutes, while protecting the identity of the witnesses going forward,” she said.