NYPD Chokehold Evidence to Stay Secret as Protests Spread

A state prosecutor who pledged to make public grand jury information in the choking death of Eric Garner by New York City police officers declined to seek the release of evidence in the case, adding fuel to protests that spread across the country.

A New York judge yesterday approved prosecutor Daniel Donovan’s request for “limited public disclosure” of facts tied to the grand jury, most of which have already been reported.

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James said the information Donovan asked to be disclosed shed “no light on the process.” She said she would seek to have the evidence released.

Garner, 43, a father of six, was stopped by police July 17 on a street in New York's borough of Staten Island for allegedly selling individual cigarettes. Garner, who is black, died after Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who is white, put him in a choke hold, wrestling him to the ground with other officers in an attempt to place him under arrest.

The grand jury’s Dec. 3 decision not to indict Pantaleo reignited nationwide protests over police abuse following the decision by a Missouri grand jury not to charge a Ferguson police officer with shooting a black, unarmed 18-year-old after a confrontation.

Protests in Manhattan continued yesterday, with thousands of demonstrators blocking streets. They have been joined by protesters in Washington, Chicago and San Francisco, among other cities, in decrying the deaths of black suspects in police stops.

U.S. Probe

The U.S. Justice Department, already probing the Ferguson police practices, said it will conduct an investigation into Garner’s death, led by its civil-rights division and U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch in Brooklyn, New York. Lynch has been nominated to replace U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who announced his resignation in September.

Donovan sought release of facts including that the grand jury sat for nine weeks and heard from 50 witnesses, 28 of whom were police officers, emergency medical personnel and doctors. The other 22 were civilians, said State Supreme Court Justice Stephen Rooney. Donovan omitted requests for the release of witness statements or exhibits.

Sixty items were entered into evidence, including four videos, records of NYPD policies, procedures and training, as well as medical records and photographs from Garner’s autopsy and the scene of his death, the judge said.

Jonathan Moore, an attorney for Garner’s family, criticized Donovan, and said all grand jury evidence should be made public.

‘Transparent Attempt’

“It’s a very transparent attempt to look like he’s trying to be fair,” Moore said of the prosecutor. “But if you’re not going to release the transcripts of what people said or the exhibits, then why release anything?”

On a widely circulated video of the incident, Garner can be heard saying he couldn’t breathe as police restrained him on the sidewalk. A medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, caused by compression of the neck and chest.

Pantaleo, 29, a lifelong Staten Island resident who’s been a New York City Police Department officer for eight years, said in a statement that he didn’t intend to harm anyone. Stuart London, an attorney for Pantaleo, didn’t respond to messages yesterday seeking comment on the judge’s decision.

Smallest Borough

Donovan, the first elected Republican district attorney in New York City in more than half a century, has jurisdiction over Staten Island, New York City’s smallest and most politically conservative borough.

Members of state grand juries are drawn from the county in which they sit. Approximately 29 percent of registered voters in Staten Island are Republicans, the largest contingent of any of the city’s five boroughs, according to state registration records.

Donovan, 58, who faces re-election in November, is a native of Staten Island with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from St. John’s University in Staten Island and a law degree from Fordham University School of Law in Manhattan, according to a biography posted on his website.

He began his career in the office of former Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau, where he served as a prosecutor for eight years before being named chief of staff to former Staten Island Borough President Guy V. Molinari.

He held that position for six years before being named deputy borough president under James Molinaro in 2002. Donovan was elected to his current post in 2003. He lost to Democrat Eric Schneiderman in the race for state attorney general in 2010.

Compelling Need

Unlike in Missouri, where so-called sunshine laws allowed prosecutors to disclose testimony and evidence from the confrontation in which Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, New York law requires grand jury proceedings remain secret unless a court authorizes release of any matter involving the panel.

A “compelling need” must be shown that outweighs the need for secrecy, the judge said, which is necessary if the panel is going to be effective in probing allegations of misconduct.

New York grand juries have 23 members, and 16 of them must be present to hear evidence and to deliberate, Donovan said. At least 12 jurors who have heard the evidence and the legal instructions must agree there is enough evidence and reasonable cause that a person committed a crime to formally charge him, he said.

‘Limited Disclosure’

Donovan’s request for a limited release of information established that there were facts that warranted discourse of aspects of the proceeding “in the interest of assuring the public that the relevant evidence was presented to that body,” Justice Rooney said.

“Somewhat uniquely in this matter, the maintenance of trust in our criminal justice system lies at the heart of these proceedings, with implications affecting the continuing vitality of our core beliefs in fairness, and impartiality, at a crucial moment in this nation’s history, where public confidence in the even-handed application of these core values among a diverse citizenry is being questioned,” Rooney said.

Donovan said in a statement that he is only authorized to release the information contained in the judge’s order.

Shootings

On Dec. 3, a white former police chief in South Carolina was charged with murder in the 2011 shooting death of an unarmed black man. A grand jury in Orangeburg returned an indictment against Richard Combs, former police chief of Eutawville.

Combs allegedly shot and killed 54-year-old Bernard Bailey on May 2, 2011, following an altercation in front of the Eutawville town hall. John O’Leary, an attorney for Combs, didn’t return calls seeking comment on the charge.

In November, an unarmed 19-year-old man was killed by a police officer in New York as he walked in an apartment building stairwell. Two days later in Cleveland, an officer fatally shot a 12-year-old boy wielding a BB gun.

Holder said yesterday after an 18-month review that Cleveland police engaged in a pattern of “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force.” The investigation found that the city’s officers violated constitutional rights through deadly force, use of Tasers, chemical spray and fists as well as attacks on the mentally ill, the Justice Department said in a report.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, the television host and activist who has led the call for greater police accountability in such killings, called for a march on Washington on Dec. 13 to protest what he called a dysfunctional state grand jury system.

Police Training

Mayor Bill de Blasio yesterday went to the NYPD’s new $750 million academy in Queens to showcase a new training program prompted by Garner’s death, and aimed at making police more sensitive to minorities.

The training will involve 22,000 of the NYPD’s 34,500 officers, Commissioner William Bratton said. The $35 million program will include techniques to persuade people to cooperate; crisis and conflict resolution; and tactics to deflect force.

Efrain Alicea, 50, a pastor at the Elements Church in the Morris Park section of the Bronx, said at yesterday’s protest in Manhattan that demonstrations were needed to “send a clear message that the people are fed up and a change is needed.”

Finny Varghese, 37, a pastor at Hope Church in the Astoria section of Queens, said it was his “first time coming to something like this.”

“I have friends who are cops but I think the word needs to get out that there is a huge problem with excessive police force,” Varghese said. “The death of Eric Garner was not an isolated incident.”

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