Garner case reveals the problems with grand juries



By Jason Zappulla, Osceola Fundamental High School

On December 3, 2014, a Staten Island grand jury refused to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. Garner, an asthmatic African-American man from Staten Island, died on July 17, 2014, after being put in a chokehold for 19 seconds by Pantaleo, who is white. Garner, accused of illegally selling loose, untaxed cigarettes, asked to be left alone; the situation quickly escalated from there.

The incident has incited protests, which have sometimes turned violent, and raised questions about racial relations and police brutality in the United States. However, one issue that has not been so often discussed is that of grand juries in the American justice system. While the issues of racial biases and police overreach are certainly relevant, the use of grand juries has exacerbated the situation.

Grand juries differ from regular juries in a few crucial ways. As described by the American Bar Association, “grand jurors are not screened for biases or other improper factors.” Additionally, witnesses in a trial can invoke the Fifth Amendment to refuse to answer incriminating questions. However, such a right does not exist in grand juries, and witnesses that refuse to answer can be held in contempt of court, which sometimes carries jail time.

The grand jury process takes place under a cloak of secrecy, as media are not allowed to observe the proceedings. It’s worth noting that the United States is one of the very few countries that still use grand juries; England, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have all stopped the practice, as have some states. Hawaii has replaced grand juries with a group of lawyers advised by an independent counsel. In Wisconsin, a five-member board–comprised of a former judge, a former district attorney, and an expert college professor–works with a team of experts to investigate cases concerning police officers. After the Garner ruling, perhaps it is time for the rest of the United States to turn to Hawaii and Wisconsin for insight.

Sources and further reading: AjJazeera / NY Times / Gothamist