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NYCLU Appeals Decision To Keep Eric Garner Documents Secret

The NYCLU is fighting a Staten Island judge's decision to keep the grand jury documents under seal. The civil rights organization had petitioned the court to release the documents earlier this year.

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UPDATE: The NYCLU on Tuesday filed an appeal to reverse a Staten Island Judge's decision not to release documents detailing the Eric Garner grand jury proceedings.

The civil rights organization filed the appeal in the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court. The Legal Aid Society, the NAACP, and the New York Public Advocate's office are also signing the brief.

"Across the country people are coming together to protest the failure of our criminal justice system to value black lives," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. "New York has an opportunity to end the secrecy that has heightened deep-seated suspicions about the criminal justice system's willingness and commitment to hold police officers accountable when they kill unarmed civilians. We hope the court seizes this moment to provide some much needed transparency for the thousands who continue to demand answers in the streets."

Testimony heard by a grand jury that decided not to indict a police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner will not be made public, a judge said in an earlier ruling.

Civil rights groups and journalists sought to have the minutes of the secret proceedings released, arguing that the public needed to reconcile the testimony with widely circulated video footage that showed Garner under a chokehold by NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo.

Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan argued releasing the information would damage the credibility of prosecutors, who assure grand jurors and witnesses that their participation will remain secret.

Judge William Garnett on Thursday ruled that the parties who brought the lawsuit — which included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Aid Society, the city's Public Advocate and the New York Post — needed to show a "compelling and particularized need" to release the minutes, the Associated Press reported.

"The only answer which the court heard was the possibility of effecting legislative change," the judge wrote. "That proffered need is purely speculative and does not satisfy the requirements of the law."

After the ruling, Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, said the organization planned to appeal the ruling.

"We think the decision was wrong on the law. And we believe that we and other applicants met the standard," she told BuzzFeed News. "There is a compelling and particularized interest in disclosure that is essential to inform the public conversation about grand jury reform and about police practices in New York City."

Garnett agreed with the district attorney's argument that secrecy needed to be maintained to assure the cooperation of some witnesses.

Grand jury deliberations are normally done behind closed doors, and testimony is kept secret.

But after grand juries in New York and Missouri last year decided not to indict white police officers involved in the deaths of two unarmed black men, including Garner, many civil rights groups and other organizations have pushed for the testimony to be made public.

In Ferguson, Missouri, the prosecutor in the Michael Brown case decided to release the information.

In Staten Island, Donovan asked that some of the information be released, according to the AP, but that didn't include testimony or evidence that was shown to grand jurors.

"We think this grand jury process was deeply flawed," Jonathan Moore, an attorney representing Garner's family, told the AP. "We think the ability for the public to see what that process was like would have been an important step in understanding what happened here."

Donovan released a statement after Garnett's decision, saying, "We respect and will adhere to Judge Garnett's well-reasoned decision."

After the ruling, the New York Civil Liberties Union said the decision will only "reinforce the distrust many New Yorkers already feel toward the performance of the criminal justice system."

"The failure to indict the officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner has left many wondering if black lives matter," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. "Sadly, today's decision will only leave many asking that same question again."

Salvador Hernandez is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.

Contact Salvador Hernandez at salvador.hernandez@buzzfeed.com.

Nicolás Medina Mora is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Nicolás Medina Mora at nicolas.mora@buzzfeed.com.

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