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Evidence on the Attica prison uprising is too important to remain secret

There is a reason that grand jury proceedings are secret and, by and large, that serves the interest of justice.

But there are exceptions to virtually all rules, including those governing grand juries. In the case of the Attica prison revolt of 1971, there should be a specific exception, based on the historic nature of the event, the terrible consequences it produced and the amount of time that has passed. It is important to know the whole story.

Some details about the uprising and response were released last week. Heavily redacted portions of the 1975 investigation into the event were made available after Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman persuaded a state judge to approve the release of long-secret portions of the report. Those sections have been sealed ever since the 570-page report was completed.

But in approving the release, State Supreme Court Justice Patrick H. NeMoyer ordered that material referring to grand jury evidence, including witness testimony, not be made public.

Thus, while the public has been given a graphic look at some of the shocking and disturbing events that occurred 44 years ago, the full picture remains unclear – including the diligence with which officials of the criminal justice system pursued those who committed crimes over the four-day crisis, whether inmates or those responding to the takeover.

The tradition of grand jury secrecy dates back to at least the 17th century in England. Yet, there are exceptions written into secrecy statutes, which is to say that even the law recognizes that other factors may occasionally trump the importance of confidentiality.

It should be plain that the Attica uprising and the disastrous response qualify as such an event. It’s not just that the public has a right to know what went on in a prison that it pays to operate and what actions were taken by public employees whose paychecks they write. At least as important is for the public to know that whatever mistakes were made before, during and after the riot are understood.

Otherwise, what happened before could happen again, in New York or elsewhere.

The details released last week make clear that crimes were committed on all sides. About 1,000 prisoners took over the prison and held 42 staff members hostage. Negotiations failed and, after four days, Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller ordered the facility retaken. State police moved in and, before it was over, 43 people died, including 10 guards and civilian employees and 33 inmates.

Sickening details emerged in the report released last week. National Guardsman Kevin Burke reported seeing guards beat inmates with clubs, bandages ripped off injured inmates and a prison doctor pushing an injured prisoner off a medical cart and kicking him.

Officials prevented Dr. Robert Jenks, a staff physician at Genesee Memorial Hospital, from getting a prisoner with a severe brain injury to the hospital. Ontario County Sheriff Ray Morrow described “acts of brutality” against inmates.

Yet, all three, and others, were unable to identify perpetrators because investigators did not interview witnesses when their memories were fresh. Why was that? Did grand jurors ask that question? It would be worth knowing. It would also be worth understanding, as best as possible, the precise circumstances surrounding such acts. Provocation might not be exculpatory, but it would be relevant nonetheless.

Perhaps a repeat of the Attica disaster is likely. Maybe conditions have changed enough that such a catastrophe is only a remote possibility. Yet, only two months ago, three Attica guards pleaded guilty to a brutal assault that left a prisoner, George Williams, with a broken shoulder, two broken ankles and a broken eye socket.

They attacked him without provocation and got off with misdemeanor convictions and a promise of no jail time. Clearly, some lessons still need to be learned in Attica.

If ever there were a necessary exception to the secrecy rule, it should be in this case. That should be the commitment of everyone in the criminal justice system. If it has to wait until the last grand jury witness dies, that would be unfortunate, but tolerable. But make the arrangements now to release the entire report.