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Judge hears opinions on Attica report unsealing

  • Article by: CAROLYN THOMPSON
  • Associated Press
  • February 27, 2014 - 12:40 PM

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The widow of the state police captain who gave the command to retake the Attica prison from rioting inmates in 1971 says unsealing investigative documents now would be unfair, but others say it's time, for the sake of history, to let the public see them.

More than a dozen groups and individuals have weighed in on Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's state Supreme Court request to open two remaining volumes of a 1975 report examining investigations into the uprising that ended when state troopers and guards stormed the facility and fatally shot 29 inmates and 10 hostages.

Justice Patrick NeMoyer, during a public response period, has received handwritten letters and lengthy legal briefs. Prison guards, inmates and members of the public with no direct connection to the uprising have weighed in, along with relatives of those killed. A decision is expected later this year.

"The hostages, widows and children of those involved have been kept in the dark for over 42 years. It is time for them to learn the truth of our states' darkest days before it is too late," said a letter supporting the documents' release signed by 91 Attica guards.

The five-day revolt began over living conditions inside the overcrowded maximum-security prison in rural western New York. On Sept. 13, 1971, state troopers and guards stormed the facility and fired hundreds of rounds into a prison yard over the span of six minutes. In all, 11 staff and 32 inmates died in the riot and siege.

Known as the Meyer Commission Report for the late judge who headed the panel, the 570-page document examined prior investigations of the retaking. The report was divided into three volumes. The first volume, with broad findings and recommendations, was released, but the other two volumes were sealed because they contain grand jury testimony.

In seeking their release, Schneiderman noted that all related criminal and civil litigation has ended. And after 40 years, he said, lingering privacy concerns could be addressed by omitting names of grand jury witnesses and people identified in testimony.

The widow of state police Col. Henry Williams believes there is no reason to disregard prior court decisions to seal the volumes, her attorney, Edward Cosgrove, told The Associated Press.

Henry Williams, then a captain, was following orders from Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and law enforcement superiors when he gave the command to retake the prison, Cosgrove said. Williams, who died in 1986, candidly testified before grand juries, disciplinary boards and other reviewers who concluded there was no criminal wrongdoing by troopers, Cosgrove said.

"It caused a great deal of sadness to the Williams family," he said. Williams' widow, Lavonne, "should not be burdened any longer by what took place and by second-guessers," he said. Removing names or other parts of the documents would only add to the confusion and misunderstanding, Cosgrove said.

The troopers' union and members of the New York State Police Investigators Association also oppose the release.

But the majority of submissions to the court favor unsealing the documents.

New York State Archivist Christine Ward cited "the continuing scholarly and public interest in the events at the Attica Correctional Facility and the ensuing investigation and litigation."

The Forgotten Victims of Attica, representing family members of guards and civilians killed or injured, say there should be no redactions.

"We are still on a quest for information that could give us solace and some closure," said a letter signed by Michael Smith, a correction officer who was held hostage during the siege, and Deanne Quinn Miller, the daughter of the only guard killed by inmates.

Two New York prison inmates also wrote in, saying releasing the documents would help expose current problems in the prisons.

Eighty-year-old Frank Kelsey, of West Henrietta, urged the judge to give relatives of those involved answers.

"To be listening to the news on that terrible day and hear the radio announcer describing the scene and then the gunfire of the state troopers on the wall firing down on that fish pond of human souls," Kelsey wrote.

Malcolm Bell, who resigned as a special assistant attorney general assigned to the investigation, supported the release to bolster his theory of a cover-up by the state designed to protect Rockefeller's political ambitions.

"The Attica narrative remains incomplete without this full, official response," wrote Bell, whose allegations led to the Meyer investigation.

The first volume of the report emphasized "important omissions" in the evidence gathered by state police afterward and the possible conflict of interest with troopers investigating their fellow officers' actions in retaking the prison. It found no intentional cover-up by prosecutors but faulted police for bad planning and failing to account for the rifles, shotguns and pistols used and bullets, slugs and buckshot fired by individual officers.

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