Protests erupted all over New York City in 2014 after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the Eric Garner chokehold case. Even as videos circulated showing the murder of Garner, the grand jury materials have remained sealed.
The State Assembly passed legislation earlier this week that would allow for the release of records in grand jury proceedings, coming at the discretion of the judge. If this piece of legislation had been in place during the Pantaleo case, Garner’s family and the general public would be privy to exactly what happened during the grand jury proceedings.
The legislation, (A5845/ S3314), is sponsored by Assemblymember Daniel O’Donnell (D-Manhattan) who represents District 69 in Manhattan and State Senator Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx).
O’Donnell says the Garner case was the motivation behind this legislation.
“I can assure you that Eric Garner’s family don’t feel that justice was served,” said O’Donnell. “What they don’t know is what the ADA (Assistant District Attorney) told the jurors or what the officer told the jurors. I thought we needed to fix this.”
The proposed law does not apply to all grand jury proceedings. It only applies in cases where grand jurors do not indict for a felony. An appeal then must be made to the judge to open up the testimony of any public servant and any expert witness who testified.
However, in order for any grand jury records to be released there is a three-pronged test that a judge must consider.
The court must determine that a significant number of the general public are likely aware that this investigation had been conducted. The court must also determine that a significant portion of the general public is aware of the identity of the subject the criminal charge was made against. The court also needs to determine that there is significant public interest in the case being disclosed.
The judge can grant full or partial disclosure but can withhold it if they find that there is a likelihood the case’s disclosure could endanger or identify a witness or grand juror, jeopardize a current or future investigation, create a threat to public safety, or is contrary to the interests of justice. The name of any witness who isn’t a public servant would not be released in any case for their safety.
O’Donnell, who is a former criminal defense attorney, hopes the bill will bring more transparency and accountability to grand juries.
“When you get to law school the first thing they tell you is that a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich,” said O’Donnell. “The threshold is generally very low but in cases where police officers are involved they tend to not indict.”
While the Assembly has passed the bill and it has been referred to the Rules Committee, it still needs to be passed by the Senate and then signed by Governor Cuomo before it becomes a law.
There is no timeline yet for when the vote will take place in the Senate.