Eric Garner’s Case Will Help Drive Grand Jury Reform

A New York judge has refused to unseal documents in the case against a New York police officer.
(Photo: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Mar 19, 2015· 0 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

On Thursday, a New York judge refused to release transcripts from the secret grand jury proceedings in the case of Eric Garner, a black man who died in a police officer’s choke hold last July. Garner’s death was captured on video and sparked protests across the country. It came less than a month after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Grand juries declined to indict police officers involved in the deaths of Garner and Brown.

Several advocacy groups argued that releasing the transcripts and other documents in the case against the police officer involved in Garner’s death would promote transparency across the criminal justice system. That, in turn, they argued, would help restore public confidence in the system.

The judge, William Garnett, noted the groups were asking for a “sea change” in the law that governs the secrecy of grand jury documents. But, he said, such changes should be driven legislatively, rather than in the courts.

The judge’s decision will add to the growing debate over the relevance of grand juries. Last month, New York state’s top judge called for dramatic reform of the grand jury system—including requiring courts to release grand jury transcripts. Already, California’s legislature is considering a measure that would essentially bar grand juries in cases in which police officers fatally shoot civilians.