Congressional candidate Dan Donovan defended his role in the grand jury investigation into the death of Eric Garner, a black man, which resulted in no charges during a broadcast debate on Tuesday.
Donovan, the Staten Island district attorney, and Vincent Gentile, a city councilman, are vying for the House seat vacated by former Rep. Michael Grimm. The special election for the district which also comprises parts of Brooklyn is set for May 5.
Donovan, a Republican, led the grand jury investigation into Garner’s videotaped death after a confrontation with a white police officer. When no officers were indicted, there were major protests across the city.
Garner’s death was part of the subject of the first question. Donovan was asked if he thinks any state laws need to be changed in the wake of grand jury testimony not being released. He has said state law keeps him from releasing grand jury information, and a judge ruled last month against efforts from some people to unseal them. At the debate, he said the secrecy of the grand jury is important to persuade witnesses to come forward without being afraid of retribution.
He said he wouldn’t do anything differently.
“We actually presented a fair and impartial presentation over nine weeks to 23 citizens,” he said.
Gentile, a Democrat, said Donovan had consented to grand jury minutes being released in another case in 2012, before a judge denied the release.
“If he wasn’t concerned about the witnesses in that case, in 2012, then one has to argue, what concern did he have for witnesses in this case,” Gentile asked.
He asked if the concern was actually “trying to avoid some criticism of himself and his office.”
Donovan said he didn’t know what case Gentile was referring to.
Garner’s death was referenced even before the debate got started when an audience member called out, “I can’t breathe,” a reference to Garner’s last words. And at the end of the debate, as Gentile was giving his closing remarks, a woman yelled, “Black lives matter.”
The candidates also were asked about the city’s Superstorm Sandy recovery programs and how they would address the district’s infrastructure needs. Other subjects included the minimum wage and who they supported in the presidential race.