The Puerto Rican Bar Association, and its members, stand in solidarity with those communities saddened by the senseless loss of life that resulted from the fatal encounter between Eric Garner and New York City Police Officers. It is clear that the legal practices, policies, rules, and procedures applied to circumstances like that of Mr. Garner demand reflection and review of our current criminal justice system with a vision toward comprehensive reform. It is important for law and order that public confidence be restored in our justice system.
Historically, the purpose of the Grand Jury was to preserve “justice” by preventing private individuals in power, such as kings and monarchs, from bringing unsubstantiated and/or falsified charges against their people. The Founding Fathers included the Grand Jury in the American system of jurisprudence to prevent our government from enacting practices similar to those European monarchs.
Under the current Grand Jury system in New York State, prosecutors have enormous power and possess broad discretion when making decisions about whom to, and how to, charge a crime in our criminal justice system. When there is a potential for a conflict of interest to arise, such as when a police officer is the subject of a criminal investigation, this discretion becomes problematic since all felony cases must be presented to the Grand Jury. Consequently, under the circumstances, a Special Prosecutor should have been appointed to preside over the Garner Grand Jury proceeding or a special investigative Grand Jury empanelled in order to have maintained the integrity of the New York State criminal justice process.
The Grand Jury hears evidence presented by prosecutors and takes action regarding the evidence and legal charges they are to consider. An action the Grand Jury can take, among others, is to vote for an indictment, a written statement charging an individual with the commission of a felony. In order to indict, the Grand Jury must determine that the evidence presented is legally sufficient and that it provides reasonable cause to believe that the defendant has committed the crime. Otherwise, the Grand Jury dismisses the matter. A Grand Jury’s deliberation, and the evidence presented therein, and how the evidence is presented is not open to the public and the record is sealed in most instances.
In this day in age when transparency is held at such a high premium, why should the Grand Jury process be kept secret from the public? What is the rationale for keeping the proceedings secret when anyone with a television or mobile device has most likely seen and listened to the video of the arrest, the most pertinent evidence of the interaction between law enforcement officers and Eric Garner? This is an important question when so much anger and frustration is understandably directed at the finding of the Grand Jury for Eric Garner.
The result of such secrecy is public outrage, and justifiably so.
When the leaders in our community are asked by the public, “How could anyone looking at the video not find some ground for which to prosecute the Officer for his actions?” The answer is that we, the public, really don’t know. The process has kept us in the dark, creating not only a loss of trust in our jurisprudence system, but escalating our frustration, increasing our sense of helplessness as individuals, and specifically, as minorities, and instilling a sense of fear of government as well. When someone asks what was the reasoning behind the Grand Jury’s decision, the answer is that no one really knows, which leads the public to speculate as to what transpired in the Grand Jury process. Was it a racially motivated decision? If it was, then shouldn’t the District Attorney’s office have avoided this possibility of injustice by changing the venue? If the venue wasn’t changed, do we look into the appropriateness of the dynamic between the prosecution and the officers who testify routinely on behalf of the State? Should not a special prosecutor have been assigned for the Grand Jury?
All these questions are being asked in our community, and we, as leaders, are unable to provide meaningful answers due to the institutional information barrier called the Grand Jury.
And what message does the Grand Jury send law enforcement? We must bring attention to the current culture of law enforcement in our City and State and ask our representatives and community leaders to investigate and support change in police training policies and arrest practices in an effort to prevent such needles tragedy from occurring again.
As such, the Puerto Rican Bar Association calls for the Bar, as a whole, to reevaluate our system of jurisprudence and the policies regarding police procedures and the use of force against its citizens. The Puerto Rican Bar Association and its members are prepared to assist in reforming the New York State penal statutes as well as the rules, regulations, policies and procedures governing our criminal justice system.
The Puerto Rican Bar Association, as always, will continue to endeavor to ensure that Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and other diverse ethnic and racial groups are adequately represented in our legal profession so that the Latino community will continue to have a voice regarding New York State law and policy.
The Puerto Rican Bar Association