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Judge allows partial release of Attica riot papers

Approved a request to allow a fuller history of the nation’s bloodiest prison riot to be revealed

By Michael Virtanen
Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. — A New York judge on Thursday approved a request to allow a fuller history of the nation’s bloodiest prison riot to be revealed, including a look into whether there was any cover-up by authorities.

But Justice Patrick NeMoyer excluded from release grand jury transcripts that were part of the investigation into the 1971 Attica prison rebellion, raising questions about whether victims’ families who have fought for years to see the full report will get all the answers they’re seeking.

NeMoyer said it’s now up to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has the document known as 1975 Meyer Commission report, to publicly release its two remaining volumes after removing evidence from grand jury investigations into possible crimes.

The judge acknowledged the evidence was central to the report findings, but that doesn’t trump the general requirement for grand jury secrecy.

Schneiderman had sought court permission to reveal the deeper report of the riot, including the investigations that followed, on behalf of relatives who lost loved ones and believe they’ve never had a full accounting of actions taken by authorities before and after the deaths. The Meyer Commission investigated whether there were cover-ups by prosecutors and investigators of wrongdoing.

During the riot, 11 staff and 32 inmates were killed — all but four shot by state police and corrections officers retaking the prison.

About 33,000 pages of grand jury transcripts were generated by the Attica investigation and reviewed by the commission, named for the late judge who headed the investigation. NeMoyer wrote that it’s up to Schneiderman to decide whether to also remove names and information from the rest of the report that might identify grand jury witnesses and targets, something Schneiderman had proposed.

The attorney general’s office said the decision was “a step forward” in its effort to shed more light on one of the most tragic events in the state’s history and would decide how to best proceed in releasing a redacted version of the report.

Jonathan Gradess, an attorney who has worked with the Forgotten Victims of Attica group, said the group planned to discuss the judge’s decision later Thursday. He declined to comment immediately.

Thomas Mungeer, president of the New York State Troopers Police Benevolent Association, said he was satisfied with the decision, that preserving “the sanctity of the grand jury process” was the heart of the group’s argument against releasing the two volumes. The union had cited its duty to protect the rights of now-retired troopers who had been forced to testify about their actions during the riot and those who recounted it in criminal investigations and two decades of lawsuits.

The 570-page report was divided into volumes. The first, with broad findings and recommendations, has been released.

It said 62 inmates were 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 emphasized “important omissions” in evidence gathered by state police and possible conflicts of interest with investigating fellow officers. It found no intentional cover-up by prosecutors. However, the report 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.

In 1976, Gov. Hugh Carey effectively ended official scrutiny when he pardoned seven inmates and barred disciplinary action against 20 troopers and prison guards among the hundreds of officers who retook the prison. He commuted the murder sentence of inmate John Hill, who was convicted of beating guard William Quinn to death.

The commission concluded Quinn and three inmates were killed by prisoners.