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In Eric Garner case, state appeals court rules against releasing grand jury minutes

People protest the death of Eric Garner on

People protest the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island on the first anniversary of his death on July 17, 2015. Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

A state appeals court Wednesday refused to release minutes from the secret Staten Island grand jury that declined to indict any cops in the death of Eric Garner, ruling that there was no showing of a "compelling and particularized need" for the information.

Despite a public uproar, the Appellate Division Second Department in Brooklyn said secrecy is a key feature of grand juries, and neither the need to quell public unrest, satisfy public interest, or inform reform efforts are sufficient to overcome it.

"Ensuring the independence of the grand jury, preventing the very real or potential danger that disclosure might present to the physical safety of the grand jurors and witnesses, and protecting them from public scrutiny and criticism, all militate in favor of maintaining grand jury secrecy," said the judges.

The court also argued that disclosure could "negatively interfere" with an ongoing federal investigation into Garner's death and affect the willingness of witnesses to cooperate, but did not explain why it thought that might happen.

Public Advocate Letitia James, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Aid Society and the New York NAACP, which had sued to release the grand jury materials, all said they planned to appeal the ruling.

"When a grand jury makes a decision about whether or not to indict an officer in the killing of a New Yorker, the public has a right to know why," said civil liberties union director Donna Lieberman.

"There is a deep and well-founded suspicion of the criminal justice system partly because no one has been accountable for the death of Eric Garner and the community doesn't know why."

Garner was killed last July during an arrest after he was accused of selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island. A cellphone video showed him being taken down after NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo grabbed him around the neck from behind. Chokeholds are banned by the NYPD.

The grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo in December, triggering demonstrations. A judge let Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan, now in Congress, reveal the number of exhibits and witnesses and the subject of legal instructions, but rejected a lawsuit seeking more materials, setting the stage for the appeal.

In a separate case, a court last week ordered the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates police misconduct complaints and forwards those of substance to the NYPD, to release information on complaints against Pantaleo.

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