The state Supreme Court judge who was set to preside over a hearing Friday to decide whether the documents from the Eric Garner grand jury proceedings could be released to the public has recused himself from the case, NBC 4 New York has learned.
Judge Stephen Rooney removed himself from the case because his wife works at Richmond University Medical Center, the same hospital where the EMTs who responded to the Garner call worked, multiple officials familiar with the case proceedings said.
As a result, Friday's hearing will be postponed until January, when a new judge is expected to be assigned.
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New York City Public Advocate Letitia James said Rooney's recusal raises more questions than answers and "further underscores the need to release the grand jury minutes related to the investigation of Eric Garner's death."
"The only way to restore the public's faith in our justice system is to bring sunlight into the court system," she said in a statement, adding that she is directing her legal team to continue fighting in court for disclosure.
NBC 4 New York first reported earlier this month that Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan did not ask grand jurors to consider a reckless endangerment charge in the chokehold death of Eric Garner.
Donovan only asked grand jurors to consider manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide charges against NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the cop seen on widely-watched amateur video wrapping his arm around Garner's neck as the heavyset, asthmatic 43-year-old yelled, "I can't breathe!" nearly a dozen times during the July 17 confrontation, the source said.
It's not clear why Donovan left the lesser charge off the table, and he has said strict confidentiality laws surrounding grand jury proceedings prevent him from discussing the details of the case.
Donovan had submitted an application to the court seeking authorization to publicly release specific elements of the proceedings but the only information released when Rooney granted his request a day later involved the number of exhibits the jurors saw, how long they heard evidence and how many witnesses they heard it from. The application was sealed, so it's not clear if he had petitioned the judge to release information about the charges the jurors considered.
Last week, the New York Civil Liberties Union formally petitioned for the public release of the grand jury record, and the hearing on it was scheduled for this Friday.
The grand jury in the Garner case delivered a vote on Dec. 3 of "no true bill," which determined there was not probable cause that Pantaleo committed any criminal offense the panel was tasked with considering. The decision set off protests in New York City and across the country.
The NYPD said its internal review of the case is ongoing, and the U.S. Department of Justice said it also is investigating.