But the grand jury takes an unusually long time to do its job. A staggering 45 witnesses are called to give 1,600 pages of testimony over 15 secret sessions, facts we know because the district attorney himself goes out of his way to show the public what a thorough investigation he’s conducted.
Still, there are whispers that key prosecution witnesses are being excluded. And the city’s black citizens are infuriated, if not exactly surprised, when the grand jury finally comes to a decision months after the homicide: no indictment.
That wasn’t the Garner case. That was the story of 15 year-old James Powell, who was shot to death in Harlem on July 16, 1964, by an off-duty police officer named Thomas Gilligan.
The episode triggered a historic series of demonstrations in New York that were followed by sizable protests in places like Jersey City, Philadelphia, Rochester, Paterson and Chicago. Those protests, many triggered by brutality cases, very much recall the actions of the past year here in New York and in cities like Ferguson, Baltimore and Chicago.
Officer Gilligan had a disturbing record that included the shooting of another black teenager. He was exonerated in the Powell case by then Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan’s grand jury largely because witnesses testified that young Powell had a knife.
But two eyewitnesses, including a visiting member of the Italian Ministry of Finance, insisted that Powell had been unarmed. Hogan did not call them to the grand jury.
Fifty-plus years later, nobody can say definitively that Hogan’s future counterpart, Staten Island D.A. Dan Donovan, threw the case against Gilligan’s future counterpart, Daniel Pantaleo. That’s because nobody knows what happened during those secret grand jury proceedings.
What we do know is that Donovan was armed with a video of the crime so devastating that nearly three out of four Americans, including a majority of whites, were in favor of indictment after watching it. But he somehow magically lost his case. And he did so in almost exactly the same way that Frank Hogan “lost” his case against Thomas Gilligan a half-century ago.
As Hogan’s office had decades before, Donovan after the controversial decision boasted to the public about all the hard work that went into his failed effort at indictment. He noted that his grand jury had heard 50 witnesses and examined 60 exhibits over nine long weeks of testimony.
“I was committed to a fair, thorough and responsible investigation into Mr. Garner’s death,” Donovan said in a statement. He added that he had gone “wherever the evidence took me, without fear or favor.”
But it later came out that Donovan’s office may have coached witnesses to soften their characterizations of Pantaleo’s actions. A woman named Taisha Allen even told the New York Times that she was instructed to avoid using the word “chokehold.”
In researching this story for a book, I located two other grand jury witnesses who complained that they were asked more about Eric Garner’s behavior than they were about Officer Pantaleo. “They were more interested in Eric selling cigarettes than they were about what the cops did,” was how one put it.