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Public confidence vital to justice system

Protesters stage a

Protesters stage a "die-in" at the Fifth Avenue Apple Store on Dec. 5, 2014, to decry a grand jury's decision not to indict the NYPD officer involved in the July death of Eric Garner. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

A judge who refused to release the evidence presented to a grand jury that returned no indictment in the death of Eric Garner, ruled there was no legal justification for the public to know what led to the conclusion that no crime was committed.

If the public's need to know in the case of an unarmed black man who died at the hands of police doesn't meet the legal test for lifting the shroud of grand jury secrecy, then the law must be changed. A similar shroud hangs over Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota's failure to charge a Nassau County cop who shot a taxi driver in Huntington Station. Confidence in the justice system is essential, and it's diminished when the public is left in the dark.

That's true generally, but particularly when the strained relationship between blacks and police is involved. A video of Garner grabbed in an NYPD-banned chokehold, wheezing "I can't breathe" and being pressed to the ground by cops arresting him on suspicion of selling loose cigarettes, is at odds with the determination that no crime was committed.

Most grand jury presentations are quick and spare. The one in Garner's death lasted from Sept. 29, 2014 to Dec. 3. That seems like a mini-trial. Issues raised by public disclosure wouldn't have been insurmountable. It's done in many other states. The identity of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who grabbed Garner around his neck, is already public. Witnesses' names could have been withheld while disclosing their testimony, the charges sought, physical evidence and how the law was explained. Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan previously summarized the grand jury's investigation in a statement that disclosed no testimony. But a summary from the prosecutor whose office presented the case to the grand jury just doesn't cut it.

In rejecting requests for the grand jury minutes, the judge ruled those seeking them had no "compelling and particularized" need since they only wanted them to guide reform. But reform is a compelling need. State law that so guards secrecy needs to change. Secrecy isn't sacrosanct. Public confidence that justice is done is more important.


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