The aftermath of the September 1971 Attica Correctional Facility riot, which left 43 dead over a period of four days. (AP)
ALBANY – The union representing New York state troopers urged a judge Friday not to release sealed documents about the 1971 riot and retaking of Attica state prison in western New York.
The troopers’ Police Benevolent Association opposed Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s request to open remaining volumes of the 1975 Meyer Commission Report (NYLJ, Oct. 29, 2013). State Supreme Court Justice Patrick NeMoyer (See Profile) in Buffalo set a Jan. 17 deadline for written submissions.
In all, 11 prison workers and 32 inmates died—all but four shot by troopers and guards retaking the prison.
The union has a duty to protect the rights of troopers forced to testify about their actions during the riot, as well as those who have had to recount it in criminal investigations and two decades of lawsuits, President Thomas Mungeer said Friday. While he doesn’t believe there’s anything to hide, he said that painstaking investigations long ago concluded there was no criminal wrongdoing by troopers and this would open old wounds.
“The PBA has stood by them and will continue to stand by them in order to preserve the sanctity of confidential testimony during the grand jury process for all citizens,” Mungeer said. The union represents 3,500 uniformed troopers and about 3,000 retirees. An estimate last year suggested 40 or 50 had been at Attica then, he said.
Schneiderman has said he wants to reveal the fuller history of the nation’s bloodiest prison rebellion and answer the questions of families whose loved ones died.
Among those seeking the records are the Forgotten Victims of Attica, a group of prison employees who survived and relatives of those who died.
Schneiderman noted the historical significance and the fact that all related criminal and civil litigation has ended. And after 40 years, he said, the privacy concerns can be addressed more narrowly by omitting only the names of many grand jury witnesses and some people identified in testimony.
Known as the Meyer Commission Report for the late judge who headed the investigation, the 570-page document was divided into volumes. The first with broad findings and recommendations was released, but the others were sealed in 1981 because they contain grand jury testimony.
Schneiderman believes it’s time to make the Meyer report available “so the public can have a better understanding of what happened and how we can prevent future tragedies,” spokesman Damien LaVera said Friday. The attorney general “is committed to doing so in a way that protects the names of witnesses who gave secret grand jury testimony,” he said.
Published four years after the riot, and examining the investigations that preceded it, the first commission volume said 62 inmates had been indicted for various offenses, but the grand jury investigation should continue and consider all possible crimes by authorities. The original grand jury refused to indict in four cases brought against law enforcement personnel. One trooper was later indicted on a charge of reckless endangerment in 1975.
The commission report emphasized “important omissions” in the evidence gathered by state police afterward and the possible conflict of interest with troopers investigating their fellow officers’ actions in retaking the prison. It found no intentional cover-up by prosecutors but faulted police for bad planning and failing to account for the rifles, shotguns and pistols used and bullets, slugs and buckshot fired by individual officers.
Gov. Hugh Carey effectively ended official scrutiny of the uprising in 1976 when he pardoned seven inmates and barred disciplinary action against 20 of the troopers and prison guards among the hundreds of officers who retook the prison. He also commuted the murder sentence of inmate John Hill, who was found guilty of beating guard William Quinn to death. The report concluded Quinn and three inmates were killed by prisoners.
In its court brief, the union said that proposed testimony deletions make it pointless to release the rest of the report, it would still violate long-standing New York policy to protect the sanctity of grand jury testimony, and a judge’s 1981 decision to permanently seal the second two volumes of the report constitutes the law in this case.