Cuomo Pushing for Grand Jury Reports in Police Fatality Cases

January 21, 2015
Jeff Mays

NEW YORK CITY—Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a plan to allow district attorneys to release grand jury information in cases where police kill unarmed civilians and the panel declines to indict the officers involved.

"People have to trust the justice system," Cuomo said during his State of the State address Wednesday in Albany.

The move comes in the wake of the decision by a Staten Island grand jury to not indict a white police officer in the chokehold death of an unarmed black man, Eric Garner whom police were trying to arrest for allegedly selling loose cigarettes.

It also follows the national debate on discriminatory policing set office when an officer in Ferguson, Mo., Darren Wilson, shot an unarmed Michael Brown.

A grand jury also declined to indict in that case and federal prosecutors were set to clear Wilson Wednesday as well.

Under Cuomo's plan, DAs will be able to issue the grand jury report or letter of facts when the police killing of an unarmed civilian is not presented to the grand jury or when the grand jury declines to indict.

Grand jury proceedings are secret in New York state in order to protect witnesses and the integrity of the process, information can be revealed through court order in compelling circumstances.

Different states have different rules about disclosure — in Missouri, for instance, grand jury information was released about the Ferguson case.

Cuomo also plans to introduce an independent monitor, such as a retired judge to review police cases where an unarmed civilian is killed and the case is not presented to a grand jury. The monitor would have access to police and grand jury records and be able to recommend that Cuomo appoint a special prosecutor.

Cuomo has the power to appoint a special prosecutor, but it was not clear how the rest of the plan would be implemented.

Calls for reform came in the wake of the Garner decision.

In that case, Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan promised to release information about the case, but didn't disclose witness names or a transcript of the testimony.

Now he is fighting the release of that information in a court case, citing reported retaliation against a witness in Ferguson. He called the reports "highly questionable," according to court documents.

The proposal falls short of calls by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that he be given power to investigate the deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of police. It also falls short of the call by police reform groups that a special prosecutor be appointed to handle such cases.

"The only way the criminal justice system can truly hold officers accountable is through the creation of a special prosecutor," read a statement from Priscilla Gonzalez, organizing director of Communities United for Police Reform.

But the city's other district attorneys largely came out in support of the proposal.

"This change will provide greater transparency into cases of vital public interest. The proposed subsequent review by an independent monitor would add a level of scrutiny, thereby enhancing public confidence in the process itself," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said in a statement.

"To the extent that errors are found in the grand jury presentation or new evidence is found to exist, the appointment of a special prosecutor will ensure that justice is served."

Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, who was against the idea of a special prosecutor, endorsed Cuomo's proposal.

"People must have confidence in the justice system, and the Governor’s proposals should help restore that confidence,” said Thompson in a statement.

Donovan did not immediately respond to calls for comment, but told the New York Post Wednesday, "The grand jury proceedings are secret for a reason. These are assurances we make to lay people and officers when they testify. The current proceedings work. I would oppose any change.".

Topics: Eric Garner Special Prosecutor