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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Jury still out on Lippman plan to change New York's grand jury system

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman delivers his State of

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman delivers his State of the Judiciary at the Court of Appeals on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, in Albany. Photo Credit: AP / Mike Groll

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who turns 70 in May and so must retire at year's end, called in his final State of the Judiciary address for changing the grand jury process as it applies to "deadly police-civilian encounters" and other cases of "high public interest."

In his speech Tuesday, Lippman cited "the perceptions of some" that prosecutors -- who of course work closely with police -- "are unable to objectively present to the grand jury" cases from such encounters.

Timing for Albany proposals is key. Lippman refrained from explicitly mentioning that a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict an officer in civilian Eric Garner's death. But Lippman didn't need to be specific for his listeners to make the connection.

Lippman's remarks also come just as the stories of two other grand jury probes -- one conducted in Brooklyn and the other in Suffolk -- emerge as a striking study in contrasts.

On Nov. 20 in Brooklyn's Louis Pink Houses, NYPD Officer Peter Liang let go a round from his service revolver that ricocheted off a wall, killing Akai Gurley, a civilian who happened to be down a stairway from Liang.

Police brass call it a tragic accident. But Kings County District Attorney Kenneth Thompson got a grand jury to vote felony charges against Liang, whose finger was on the trigger, which is against NYPD procedure -- even if no harm was meant to Gurley or anyone else. The grand jury indicted Liang on second-degree manslaughter and other charges exactly 82 days after the incident. Thompson even said, "We don't believe he intended to kill Mr. Gurley."

Then there's that Suffolk case. In Huntington Station four years ago, off-duty Nassau Police Officer Anthony DiLeonardo, whom authorities said had been drinking, broke the nose of cabdriver Thomas Moroughan and shot him twice with his .38-caliber revolver.

Police investigators later deemed the shooting unjustified and said DiLeonardo committed multiple felonies in the confrontation. But last year, it turns out, Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota let a special grand jury expire without key witnesses being called, Newsday has reported. Spota says he was "thwarted" in the probe on several fronts.

To sum up: Thompson, the district attorney who got the indictment, doubts that the defendant meant to kill anyone, while Spota, the district attorney who got no indictment, said he "absolutely" believed the fired cop was guilty of a crime. And Spota said he wouldn't object to a special prosecutor.

Circumstances always differ from one court case to the next and one jurisdiction to the next. But whatever the merits, you'd think these two cases played out in different galaxies.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, as part of the executive branch, seem to favor special prosecutors in these kinds of cases. But as head of the judiciary, Lippman sees reform as the job of the courts. So he called Tuesday for having judges preside more closely over these grand juries than they do now. Lippman also urged some exceptions to grand jury secrecy.

Like Cuomo, Lippman expresses concern for public confidence in the system.

He said he believes his proposals will "help preserve the integrity of the judicial branch, law enforcement and the institution of the grand jury -- in many ways a relic of another time that must be modernized and updated."

Grand jury reform has been discussed in the past. Now it remains to be seen if legislators make changes this session.


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