March 2, 2015 4:45 pm

State DAs Association Open to Cuomo Plan For ‘Grand’ Monitor

By Mark Toor

The New York State District Attorneys Association is working with the Cuomo administration to polish the Governor’s proposal to appoint an independent monitor in grand-jury cases involving the killing of civilians by police, the New York Law Journal reported Feb. 26.

“What District Attorneys generally support are the essential parameters of the independent-monitor proposal,” the organization’s president, Erie County District Attorney Frank Sedita III, said in an interview. “We are working out some of the language issues.”

Response to Garner Case

Mr. Cuomo’s proposal was part of a seven-point plan for dealing with questions about the justice system that arise in cases like that of Eric Garner, the petty criminal who died of a heart attack following an officer’s use of an apparent chokehold when he refused to cooperate with an arrest for selling loose cigarettes.

A decision by a Staten Island grand jury not to indict the officer despite a video of the deployment of what appeared to be the kind of hold that is prohibited by the NYPD, to bring Mr. Garner to the ground spurred weeks of protests. Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan, citing the secrecy of grand-jury proceedings, said he could not shed any light on the decision. The case was complicated by racial overtones; Mr. Garner was black and the officer is white.

Some reform proposals following the controversy dealt with ways to improve transparency of the grand-jury process. Others called for removing power in such cases from local DAs on the ground that the public believes they work too closely with the police to be fair.

“I will appoint an independent monitor who will review police cases where a civilian dies and no true bill is issued and the independent monitor can recommend a special prosecutor be appointed,” Mr. Cuomo said during his State of the State address Jan. 21.

Full Access to Facts

“The independent monitor should have access to the grand-jury information which will be protected, but this way, the independent monitor can actually make an intelligent recommendation because they’ll have all the evidence and they’ll have all the facts.”

Mr. Sedita also said his group was open to another proposal by Mr. Cuomo to allow DAs to issue reports on grand-jury deliberations when a panel decides not to indict an officer involved with a civilian’s death.

But he said his group was cool to a more-recent proposal by State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman that would have judges directly preside over grand juries that deal with police officers who are implicated in felony assaults on or deaths of civilians.

“He is proposing that the judiciary assume not only its own powers but the function of the executive branch—the prosecution—in the grand-jury room,” Mr. Sedita told the Law Journal.

Don’t Favor AG’s Plan

A proposal by State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who asked Mr. Cuomo to appoint him a special prosecutor in any death of a civilian at the hands of police, was also unpopular. DAs say the proposal would rob them of the authority to prosecute crimes within their jurisdictions.

Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch has warned against structuring a system that would be more punitive toward police officers than to members of the public.