An appellate court in the state of New York has ruled that grand jury evidence related to the death of Eric Garner will not be made public after all.
In a crushing decision issued on Wednesday, the court shot down an appeal filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and others that sought to release the evidence to the public. The court upheld another judge's ruling in March that the evidence did not have to be released, citing a lack of "compelling and particularized" reasons to make the evidence public.
Garner died after being held in a chokehold by a Staten Island police officer last summer. In December, a grand jury declined to indict the officer, setting off large-scale protests in major and minor cities across the nation.
The NYCLU argued that releasing the record of the grand jury’s deliberations—and a look at what evidence they considered—is in the public interest:
National political figures–including the President and the Attorney General of the United States–have acknowledged that the Garner grand jury decision posed an unprecedented challenge to police-community relations and faith in the criminal justice system.
And yet without disclosure of the grand jury minutes the participants in such discussions remain completely without knowledge about how or why the grand jury reached the decision that it did.
The fact that evidence was not released in the case stands in contrast to how the case against former Ferguson, Mo. officer Darren Wilson was handled, when a grand jury was deciding whether to charge him for the death of teenager Michael Brown. In that case, all the grand jury evidence was released immediately after the non-indictment announcement. Unpopular as the decision might have been in some circles, the release of all the grand jury evidence left no room for speculation as to how it reached that decision. Rather, it was subject to public scrutiny and debate, which furthered a national conversation on the policing of people of color.
The Garner case, with Wednesday's decision, moves further away from that.
"When the indictment [of the officer] didn't come, it raised such problematic issues across the nation. In order to address those issues, one needed to see how the case was presented, why it was presented, what was presented, so people could understand why this unjust result took place," James Meyerson, attorney for the Staten Island NAACP and the New York State Conference of NAACP, two of the petitioners, told Fusion. "If ever there was a case for transparency to understand what caused the grand jury to make a decision that everyone views to be a very problematic result, it was in this matter."
In New York, the court said, grand juries operate under "a presumption of confidentiality." That means everything having to do with the grand jury proceedings—"including records that were not even entered into evidence before the grand jury." Even public officials operate under that presumption of privacy, the court said.
"[I]f pre-indictment proceedings were made public, especially in high profile cases such as this, '[f]ear of future retribution or social stigma may act as powerful deterrents to those who would come forward and aid the grand jury in the performance of its duties,'" said the court, quoting a 1970s Supreme Court case.
In the appeal, petitioners suggested that the court might be able to redact certain information in order to limit the impact of disclosure. However, the court found that "under the circumstances of this case, redactions would not serve the purpose of preserving the witnesses' anonymity and thereby protect them from public criticism and scrutiny." Instead, it suggested that "the earlier widespread dissemination of two videos capturing the incident would facilitate efforts by the media and the public to identify the source of any testimony disclosed."
Meyerson, the attorney, says today's decision is an example of different pieces of the justice system coming together in order to protect itself.
"At the end of the day, an unarmed African-American was killed by New York City police officers in a video-memorialized event that made it self-evident that there wasn't the justification of any force, let alone deadly force," he said.
"Yet the public still has no clue how the grand jury failed to issue an indictment," he said.
The NYCLU issued a statement Wednesday afternoon, saying it will appeal the appellate court's decision.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.