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Long IslandPoliticsSpin Cycle

Grand jury 'reform' seems a heavy lift, but can't be ruled out yet

Staten Island DA Dan Donovan seems none the

Staten Island DA Dan Donovan seems none the worse politically for his performance in the Eric Garner case. Credit: AP / Craig Ruttle

Doubts loom as to whether lawmakers this year will alter the state's grand-jury process meaningfully. While the odds forever favor inertia over reform, various proposals on this topic seem to run up against particular roadblocks.

Last week, the GOP-run State Senate Finance Committee rejected a bill that would have created a special investigation office under Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. This was advanced after a grand jury declined to charge police officers in the now-famous death of Staten Islander Eric Garner, sparking controversy of the kind that followed Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, also in the wake of Garner's death in July, called for another set of changes. District attorneys would produce reports in cases where a death in police custody doesn't result in an indictment, for example, and the governor would appoint a special monitor to review such cases.

Using broad executive powers, Cuomo pushed grand-jury reform into the state budget adopted this month. The budget now allocates $60 million for bullet-resistant vests, bullet-resistant glass for police radio cars and body cameras -- on the condition that lawmakers enact grand-jury changes. That will not guarantee enactment, though by Albany standards it remains early in the legislative session to rule out an agreement.

In February, the state's chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, called for what some called sensible changes to address any perceptions of unfairness.

For example, Lippman urged for the first time that a judge be required to take an active role in grand-jury proceedings involving police who have harmed or killed civilians. These judges could question witnesses, direct other witnesses be called and instruct grand juries on matters of law. That would impose a new limit on district attorneys' wide options in conducting the panels.

Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan announced on Dec. 3 that a grand jury he convened in the Garner case decided to issue no indictments, drawing criticism given a viral video of the attempted arrest filmed before Garner died. Although Donovan drew heat, the controversy didn't seem to cost him politically. He's heavily favored to win the May 5 special election to succeed former Republican Rep. Michael Grimm, who pleaded guilty to tax evasion in December.

Following last week's Senate vote against the Schneiderman bill, Democratic conference leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester) said, "The fight to reform the state criminal justice system is not over."

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