LAS Criminal Chief Tells Media: Questions In Garner Grand Jury Need Answers

Justine Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Practice at The Legal Aid Society, told the Wall Street Journal that “there are questions that need to be answered” about the decision against an indictment in the Garner grand jury.

Advocates say Eric Garner's death is of major public interest, as is why no officers were indicted.

"With a video that we all saw and a medical examiner's report saying a chokehold was the cause of death, that in the end, there was no true bill," Justine Luongo, Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Practice of The Legal Aid Society, told New York 1, CBS Radio and WINS Radio.  

Wall Street Journal
Fight Set on Eric Garner Records
By Joe Jackson
Jan. 5, 2015
Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan has asked a court to deny the release of records of the Eric Garner grand jury, putting him at odds with several organizations pushing for the materials to be made public.

Mr. Donovan’s office is now expected to square off with organizations seeking the records in court on Jan. 29, a date set Monday by state Supreme Court Justice William Garnett.

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, the Legal Aid Society, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the parent company of the New York Post, all filed motions last month asking the court to unseal the records. News Corp is the parent of both the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal.

In responses to each motion filed Friday, the Staten Island district attorney asked for the applications to be denied, citing precedents upholding grand-jury secrecy.

Mr. Donovan’s office declined to comment Monday.

Mr. Donovan oversaw the grand jury that decided on Dec. 3 not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, a white New York Police Department officer, in the death of Mr. Garner, an African-American.

Officer Pantaleo was seen in a widely circulated amateur video of the July 17 incident putting Mr. Garner in an apparent chokehold as the officer attempted to arrest the 43-year-old for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes.

The grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Pantaleo sparked nationwide protests over racial tensions with law enforcement, including near-nightly protests in New York City that led to hundreds of arrests.

Since the grand jury decision, Mr. Donovan has emerged as a leading GOP potential candidate to succeed Republican U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm in Congress, bringing renewed attention to his role in the Garner case.

Mr. Grimm has stepped down after he pleaded guilty to a tax-evasion charge.

A judge in December granted a request by Mr. Donovan to release limited information about the grand jury, such as how long the panel was in session and the number of witnesses jurors heard from.

In court Monday, Justice Garnett said he would rule on the motions “exclusively” on the laws of the state.

Gwen Carr, Mr. Garner’s mother, attended the brief hearing.

“I would like transparency, to see what actually happened and why they didn’t” vote for an indictment, she said outside the courthouse.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs have asked for transcripts of the grand jury proceedings—which ran for more than two months last year.

They also requested a list of the physical and documentary evidence presented to jurors, among other things.

Arthur Eisenberg, an attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the case had generated important public debate over the secrecy surrounding grand juries.

He added that although there was “a presumption of secrecy,” some circumstances offered “compelling interests” that justified the disclosure of such records.

“We are engaged in a public conversation about grand jury proceedings, about police behavior and the disclosure of the grand jury minutes allows for that conversation to be more informed,” he said.

Justine Luongo, an attorney in charge of criminal practice at the Legal Aid Society, said that “there are questions that need to be answered” about the decision against an indictment.

Candace McCoy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said it was extremely rare for secret grand jury evidence to be released without prior agreement.

She added that although there are reasons to support grand jury secrecy—from their investigatory nature to protecting witnesses and trial strategies—the system was antiquated and in need of reform.