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State attorney general seeks to unseal long-secret volumes on Attica prison tragedy

ALBANY – The state’s top lawyer has gone to court to seek the unsealing of a secret report on how the state handled the Attica uprising more than four decades ago, a two-volume report locked away in a secure room on the third floor of a downtown Buffalo office building.

Former prison guards and family members of victims of the nation’s worst prison riot have wanted to read that report for 38 years.

“The passage of time has made clear that – like the shootings at Kent State, the violent police attacks on civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s, the My Lai massacre and the Watergate scandal – Attica is more than just a profoundly tragic event; it is an historic event of significance to generations of Americans,” State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s court papers argue in trying to end the permanent seal that courts ordered for the documents.

“Attica was a tragic event in the history of our state,” Schneiderman said in a statement provided to The Buffalo News. His office has asked the State Supreme Court in Wyoming County to release the remaining approximately 350 pages of a 1975 report that some families hope will bring at least more closure regarding the revolt’s death toll.

“It is important, both for families directly affected and for future generations, that these historical documents be made available so the public can have a better understanding of what happened and how we can prevent future tragedies,” the attorney general said.

The Attica uprising, which began shortly after 9 a.m. Sept. 9, 1971, and ended four days later amid tear gas and hundreds of shots fired by State Police and National Guard members using shotguns and automatic weapons. It left 43 people dead, including 10 guards, and 89 seriously wounded. All but four were killed by police, guards and soldiers during the 15 minutes required to storm and retake the prison’s D Yard in an action ordered by then-Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller.

Schneiderman is seeking what victims and family members have sought since 1975, when Bernard S. Meyer, a Long Island lawyer and former state judge, finished a three-volume report that found many disturbing errors in how the state handled the siege and aftermath, but no evidence of an intentional cover-up by Attica prosecutors.

Only one of the three volumes was ever made public. State judges in 1977 and 1981 sealed about 350 pages of the report because they contained mostly grand jury testimony. The volumes are locked up in the attorney general’s Buffalo regional office in the Main Place Tower.

Now, after years of requests to governors and previous attorneys general by a group of former prison workers who survived the riot and by family members of those killed, Schneiderman seeks the release of the full set of volumes that Meyer submitted Aug. 27, 1975.

Schneiderman told the court that the names of grand jury witnesses and certain people named in testimony will be redacted. Officials said the limited redactions are meant to protect the grand jury secrecy process. Schneiderman late Friday submitted his proposed redactions to the court, and proposed that they be available for review by “affected persons” still alive and then approved by a judge.

The attorney general’s filing seeks to have previous orders sealing the documents lifted because of “circumstances that were not, and could not have been, before [previous courts] because they arose only with the passage of time.”

Schneiderman’s filing noted the “historical significance” of the two sealed volumes “in light of the enduring legacy of the Attica uprising and its place in the history of this state and the nation” and that all civil and criminal litigation has long since ended.

After four decades, privacy-related concerns of grand jury witnesses can be “fully addressed with narrowly tailored redactions,” Schneiderman said. Redactions would not cover the names of public officials, people killed or wounded during the retaking, and others who played “a secondary or inconsequential role” in the Meyer probe.

Schneiderman said the volumes contain “historically significant information” related to accusations of a state-sanctioned cover-up in the Attica prosecutions.

“The charges of official ‘cover-up’ that are at the heart of Bernard Meyer’s investigation and report are a critical part of this history, and are no less disturbing and no less compelling now than when the report was first issued more than three decades ago,” Schneiderman said.

Schneiderman’s court papers say that there are no other sources, beyond the sealed documents, to back up Meyer’s contention that there was no “intentional” cover-up by Attica prosecutors.

With 42 years passed since the Attica revolt, Schneiderman’s filing states, it is time that the evidence and conclusions drawn in the two sealed volumes “finally be exposed to the light of public scrutiny.”

He argues that the “eyes of history” have a right to see the complete Attica story.

He also notes many precedents in the release of grand jury documents, pointing to such historic cases as those from Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Alger Hiss.

Jonathan E. Gradess, one of the lawyers who is providing pro bono services to the Forgotten Victims of Attica, said Schneiderman’s team took seriously the pleas of the family members and former prison workers to get the Meyer volumes released. The issue was raised with Schneiderman two years ago.

“Very early on, it became clear they were going to become helpful,” Gradess said.

Some members of the group have been denied access to an assortment of information, including autopsy reports of their own husbands killed in the retaking of the prison.

“They’re just like victims of violent crimes everywhere. Their most important and burning question is: What happened? What was my husband wearing? Where was he? How did he die?” Gradess said.

The group, formed 13 years ago, has won some battles, including state compensation and a guarantee for an annual memorial service on the prison grounds. But Gradess said that release of the Meyer volumes is one battle among others that the group will press to resolve. Another 1970s investigation of 100 volumes remains locked in the state archives.

Gradess said that no one is really sure what’s in the sealed Meyer volumes.

“Nobody cares about the motivation. We want to know what happened. What happened in the Indian summer of 1971 when the state deployed attack helicopters over one of its own prisons? There’s never closure for the victims and survivors of violence, but there is the need to obtain information,” he said.

The previously released pages of the Meyer Report, as the document came to be known, suggested some grand jury members had a bias against indicting any law enforcement officials for their actions during the retaking of the prison.

Meyer, later appointed as a judge to the state’s highest court, submitted his three-volume report – which followed a 10-month investigation – to then-Gov. Hugh L. Carey and Attorney General Louis J. Lefkowitz. Meyer has since died.

Previously, one of the special Attica prosecutors, Malcolm H. Bell, quit after alleging that officials were intent on not prosecuting law enforcement involved in the Attica retaking.

Meyer, in his report, found State Police plans to gather evidence after the police retaking of the prison “extraordinarily deficient” noting that officials, among other things, did not account for which trooper had which specific weapon and failed to even mark the precise location of the bodies of those killed, according to Schneiderman’s court filing.

Carey later instructed Lefkowitz to seek the release of the two final Meyer Report volumes, but the courts permanently sealed the documents instead. At the time, 83 Attica-related court cases were pending. Today, the only matter pending is a request by victims for an official apology from New York State.

The Attica riot erupted during a turbulent time in the history of the American prison system. Guards were attacked the day before the uprising, and prisoners complained of worsening conditions, a lack of prison programs and racial strife.

In 1972, the New York State Special Commission on Attica wrote, “With the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the State Police assault, which ended the four-day prison uprising, was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War.”