Share this article

print logo

In Attica aftermath, only one charge ever filed against a law enforcement officer: endangerment

ALBANY – The Meyer report notes that 62 inmates eventually were charged with 1,289 separate felony counts, ranging from murder to kidnapping, related to the Attica uprising and retaking.

But only one law enforcement official – a state trooper – ever was charged with criminal wrongdoing: reckless endangerment. And he was later pardoned, along with seven former Attica inmates.

Some inmates did identify people they said had beaten prisoners or made death threats against them after the siege ended, the Meyer volumes show.

Clarence B. Jones, co-chairman of the Goldman Panel, a group of observers that arrived several days after the retaking, testified about witnessing the aftermath of beatings of inmates. One inmate, the panel told Meyer, could identify the corrections officers involved and that they came from Auburn prison.

Then-Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller had named Robert E. Fischer to conduct a criminal investigation of the Attica. Fischer died in 2006.

When Fischer heard of allegations of brutality, he called Rockefeller’s office to tell top a top official that “he thought something should be done,” the Meyer report states.

He was told Rockefeller was appointing a group of observers led by a state judge, Harry D. Goldman.

But the report raises questions about the wisdom of having Fischer both investigate inmates involved in the prison takeover and subsequent allegations of brutality against inmates at the hands of troopers or guards.

Meyer’s investigators asked about Fischer’s “objectivity,” based on his cross-examinations of inmates.

He responded that his style as an interrogator was to show that “you are not a damn fool. … I don’t think you can indicate that you are a patsy and accept everything that comes out of their mouth.”

The rest of that passage is redacted.

The newly released volumes of the Meyer report state that there appears to have been no follow-up by Fischer regarding at least four specific inmate claims of brutality.

Fischer did express concerns about “developing inmate confidence in the integrity and fairness of his investigation,” the document states.

In one passage, Robert P. Patterson, a Goldman observer team member, in 1971 said he informed a lawyer at the U.S. Justice Department that the panel did not turn over information to Fischer about alleged brutality “because of a lack of confidence and conflict.” It noted that Fischer’s investigators were State Police employees and suggested that Fischer was not aggressively pursuing the brutality allegations.

Fischer at the time, though, said his own probe of the prison retaking was hampered by delays in having to respond to a separate Attica investigative panel and by a lack of opportunity to interview inmates. He said that panel, the McKay Commission, the main group appointed to investigate the uprising, did not help his job by telling inmates that Fischer was “looking at you criminally so you may not want to talk to them, but you can talk to us.”

The Goldman Panel on Sept. 23, 1971, asked the Rockefeller administration to reach out to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department and seek its intervention into the probe of alleged brutality in the retaking of Attica.

Fischer reported that the Justice Department was “not overly enthusiastic” about intervening. A Justice official later told the Goldman panel that Fischer never made a formal request for intervention. Fischer then did so in writing.

But the Goldman panel felt that the Fischer request was “not strong enough,” and it convinced Rockefeller to act. He wrote a letter to then-U.S. Attorney General John N. Mitchell, requesting federal involvement in the brutality probe. Rockefeller, the volumes state, was “unconcerned” about suggestions of possible conflicts for Fischer, but added that Justice intervention would be “helpful in assuring public confidence.”

The newly released documents state that most of the inmates interviewed by federal investigators either refused to talk or could not identify alleged assailants. The Meyer team said that it did not know of the federal report on the inmate allegations until 1975.

In Volume I, Meyer 40 years ago said Rockefeller’s selection of Fischer to investigate the Attica matter was “prompt and appropriate” but Fischer’s probe of the State Police’s retaking operation while at the same time employing State Police on his special investigative detail created a “possible conflict of interest.”