Decision to Keep Garner Grand Jury Minutes Secret Continues the Crime

A Staten Island judge lays another brick in the wall

A protestor mourns Eric Garner in New York in January. A Staten Island judge has denied a motion to unseal jury minutes from the case. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Yesterday afternoon, a Staten Island judge named William Garnett denied a motion by five different parties to unseal the grand jury minutes in the Eric Garner case.

The decision was a disaster, a continuation of a crime committed first by police on a Staten Island street, then behind closed doors by the District Attorney's office, which covered up the deed last fall via a secret nine-week trial masquerading as a grand jury hearing.

It was the aim of the five petitioners in this case to shine some light on that secret and probably illegal proceeding.

The NAACP, as well as New York Public Advocate Letitia James, the New York Post, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Aid Society all wanted to find out why Staten Island D.A. Dan Donovan needed more than two months and 50 witnesses to secure an indictment, when a few minutes on YouTube could have brought a truly unbiased panel 95 percent of the way home.

There were only two passages that mattered in Judge Garnett's ruling. The first one read as follows:

Despite these statutory rules, the secrecy of grand jury testimony is not sacrosanct and may be divulged, in a court's discretion, in the appropriate case.

In other words, "I can unseal these minutes if I want to."

The second important sequence read:

In summary, the movants in this case merely ask for disclosure for distribution to the public. This request is not a legally cognizable reason for disclosure.

Taken together, these two passages formed a single, clear, ugly message:

Yes, I could have helped get to the bottom of this fiasco, if it mattered enough to me – but it doesn't.

The entire rest of the judge's decision was legal mumbo-jumbo, nonsense, what NAACP lawyer James Meyerson calls "abstractions."

The law more than occasionally drifts too far in the direction of using an absurdly large amount of words to rationalize away the morally obvious thing. This was one of those times.

The reality of the situation is that the District Attorney probably acted as both prosecution and defense in the grand jury proceeding, calling an abundance of police witnesses and experts on police procedure to somehow deflect or explain away the brutal violence the whole world saw on video.

Many of those witnesses, incidentally, may have been accomplices – remember the many officers present who failed to help when Garner shouted "I can't breathe" 11 times – who are likely now immunized against future prosecution, thanks to their grand jury appearances.

The simple, right thing to do would have been to unseal the minutes, so everyone in the country could see if what District Attorney Donovan did was a real attempt at prosecution, or a sham.

Instead, Judge Garnett – who I watched flush and turn red in court earlier this year when accused of representing a racist system – handed out 12 pages of lame excuses and scurried out a legal back-door. What merely looked very bad before looks completely corrupt now.