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42 years after the Attica prison revolt, there’s no reason to keep report sealed

It’s time. In fact, it’s decades past time. The prisoner revolt at Attica occurred 42 years ago and, still, documents relating to the uprising and the investigation that followed remain secret, hidden away in a downtown Buffalo office building. There is every reason to release these records and, with appropriate considerations, there is no reason to continue keeping them secret.

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman is trying to pry that report loose. He has asked State Supreme Court in Wyoming County to release the remaining 350 pages of the report, which was completed in 1975. Supporting him are former prison guards and family members of victims of what remains the country’s worst prison riot.

The uprising began on the morning of Sept. 9, 1971. It ended four days later, as State Police and National Guard members responded with helicopters, shotguns, tear gas and automatic weapons. When it was over, 43 people were dead, including 10 guards. Eighty-nine people were seriously wounded.

We would support Schneiderman’s effort merely as a matter of the public’s right to better know what contributed to the uprising, how it was ended and what occurred in its aftermath. Schneiderman acknowledges that imperative, noting that, “It is important, both for families directly affected and for future generations, that these historical documents be made available so the public can have a better understanding of what happened and how we can prevent future tragedies.”

Schneiderman also puts the events of 1971 into a historical context, placing it alongside such calamities as the shootings at Kent State, police attacks on civil rights demonstrators, the My Lai massacre and the Watergate scandal. “Attica is more than just a profoundly tragic event,” he observed. “It is a historic event of significance to generations of Americans.”

The secrecy surrounding the report is based on the fact that its pages contain mostly grand jury testimony, which is routinely secret. But when an event is of sufficient historical nature, at some point the public’s right to know trumps the law of secrecy. When, 42 years later, it is still important to know what happened, the system needs to respond. In addition, all the significant court cases arising from the riot have been resolved.

Hence, Schneiderman’s application to the court. Last week he submitted a proposal that redacted the names of grand jury witnesses and certain people named in testimony. He proposes that his submission be reviewed by “affected persons” still alive and then approved by the court.

One of the lingering questions is whether officials worked to cover up lawbreaking by police during the operation to retake the prison. One of the special Attica prosecutors, Malcolm H. Bell, went so far as to quit after alleging that officials were intent on not prosecuting law enforcement involved in retaking the prison.

The report, by Bernard S. Meyer, a Long Island lawyer and former state judge, found that State Police efforts to gather evidence after the retaking of the prison were “extraordinarily deficient.” It noted, for example, that officials did not account for which trooper had which weapon and failed even to mark the precise location of the bodies of those killed, according to Schneiderman’s court filing.

Nevertheless, Meyer concluded that there was no “intentional” cover-up by prosecutors. But the only documentation supporting that conclusion is contained within the report that remains locked away in the Main Place Tower. It’s time to let it out.