The estate of the late Gov. Nelson D. Rockefeller is not financially responsible for the deaths that occurred during the bloody retaking of the Attica State Correctional Facility in 1971, a federal judge ruled today.
The ruling, filed in Buffalo today, is a blow to the Attica inmates at the time of the uprising who had filed a $2 billion lawsuit against former state officials. It is a victory for Rockefeller's heirs, who have been prevented by the suit from inheriting an estate worth more than $66.5 million.
Although he gave State Police the go-ahead to retake the prison Sept. 13, 1971, Rockefeller cannot be held legally responsible for the 39 deaths that resulted from the assault, U.S. District Judge John T. Elfvin said in the ruling.
Elfvin found that Rockefeller had no "personal involvement in unlawful or indiscriminate use of force" in the retaking.
"There is no question regarding his role and its legality," Elfvin wrote.
Former State Corrections Commissioner Russell G. Oswald, other former prison officials, former state police and a former commander of the New York National Guard remain defendants in the lawsuit.
But the Elfvin decision is a maSee AtticaPage A-5, Column 1AtticaContinued from Page 1jor blow to those who filed the suit, because none of the other officials approach Rockefeller's wealth.
The former governor and vice president died of a heart attack in 1979, leaving an estate then estimated at $66.5 million. Distribution of the assets has been tied up by liens that attorneys pressing the Attica lawsuit placed on the estate.
Attorneys representing 1,281 Attica inmates filed the lawsuit 14 years ago. They can appeal the ruling to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City.
Elizabeth M. Fink of Brooklyn, lead attorney for the inmates, did not return a reporter's call today.
In his written decision, Elfvin pointed out that he was only ruling on Rockefeller's involvement in the retaking of the prison and not on the question of whether improper force was used. Twenty-nine prisoners and 10 persons who had been taken hostage by the prisoners were killed when police stormed the prison, five days after a prisoner revolt.
Elfvin noted that Rockefeller refused repeated requests from Oswald and other officials to come to Attica to negotiate with the prisoners, but he noted that Rockefeller had explained that he trusted Oswald and others to handle the matter.
After negotiations broke down, Rockefeller gave Oswald permission for police to storm the prison but to use firearms only if their lives or the lives of hostages were endangered. Other than that, Rockefeller had no actual role in the planning, Elfvin wrote.