Forty Years After the Bloodiest Prison Uprising in US History, the Attica Cover-up Continues
At first blush, the ruling looks like victory. On April 24, a state court judge in Buffalo, New York, ruled in favor of releasing portions of a long-sealed report on the state’s handling of the 1971 Attica prison rebellion. But in a defeat for survivors and their relatives, the judge also ruled that the report’s most controversial content—long-suppressed courtroom evidence about atrocities committed by law enforcement during the uprising—must remain off limits to the public.
The 570-page “Meyer Report” was cobbled together nearly forty years ago after a New York State prosecutor named Malcolm Bell publicly accused officials of covering up evidence of police and prosecutorial misconduct in their handling of the episode. According to a former high state official who has read the full report, it contains “a lot of very detailed derogatory information about many people who were never charged with a crime.” Some were members of the state police or corrections department who were alleged to have shot inmates in cold blood. Others were officials who may have fabricated or destroyed evidence, committed perjury, ignored incriminating evidence, or been guilty of other serious misconduct. The report names names—at least, some names—of central actors who were never held to account.
While a single, sanitized volume of the report was released in 1975, two remaining volumes, including evidence gathered during grand jury testimony, have remained locked away ever since.
In his forty page decision, Justice Patrick H. NeMoyer conceded what many Attica critics have said for years—that the one public volume of the Meyer Report “does not set forth the full story dealing with Attica.” NeMoyer nevertheless refused to allow the release of any information taken from the two panels that heard testimony back in the 1970s—even if the passages are redacted by the New York State Attorney General to protect individual rights.
NeMoyer’s ruling is the long-anticipated result of a request by the Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, to open parts of the hitherto sealed volumes based on the public’s right to know that history. In a statement responding to the ruling, Schneiderman commended NeMoyer's decision to unseal part of the Meyer Report as “a step forward in our effort to shed more light on one of the most tragic events in the history of our state” and pledged to “review the court's order to determine how best to move forward with releasing the redacted version of the report.”
So far there is no indication that he will appeal the ruling.
The legal wrangling over the Meyer Report is just the latest in more than four decades of attempts to pry open the secrets of the Attica assault. On September 13, 1971 Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered an end to a five-day hostage-taking stand-off at the prison, unleashing an assault force of state troopers, deputy sheriffs and guards who stormed the facility with tear gas and guns, firing more than 2,000 bullets and pellets. Some of the convicts were armed with shivs or baseball bats. Immediately after the assault, state officials announced that all ten hostages killed during the assault had died from slashed throats and another had been castrated. But medical reports later established that they and twenty-nine convicts were shot to death and eighty-nine others were wounded by police fire. Sixty-two prisoners were indicted on 1,300 felony charges, and one was convicted of killing a guard at the start of the riot, yet no law enforcement personnel were prosecuted (although one trooper would ultimately be singled out for “reckless endangerment”). The one-sided prosecution would have continued were it not for Bell’s heroics.
The Meyer Commission, named for its chairman, state Judge Bernard S. Meyer, investigated Bell’s claims that the state had covered up homicides, torture and withholding of evidence by law enforcement. Meyer’s staff reviewed 33,000 pages of secret grand jury testimony and other evidence, including sworn depositions from Rockefeller, his aides, the prosecutors, and others—without acknowledging that much of that work was itself tilted in favor of law enforcement officials and Rockefeller.
Meyer released a volume of broadly worded findings that chided Rockefeller for “inappropriate” praise of the State Police, concluded that the police made “serious errors in judgment” and characterized the prosecution as “imbalanced” in favor of the police. But he insisted “there was no intentional cover-up in the conduct of the Attica investigation,” as Bell had claimed. “[P]rosecution of law enforcement personnel for murder or other shooter crimes and for perjury was not intentionally obstructed by the Attica prosecutor,” Meyer wrote.
(Significantly, Judge NeMoyer’s April 24 decision raises questions about these claims, even as it refuses to lift the lid on the whole story. In his decision, NeMoyer wrote that Meyer “cherry-picked and editorialized” from the available evidence in order to support his conclusions.)
At the time of its release, a state judge ordered the entire last two volumes containing the “supporting evidence” sealed—on the ground that they contained secret grand jury testimony. The remaining indictments against twenty-four inmates and one state trooper were dismissed, and on December 31, 1976 Governor Hugh Carey announced he was pardoning and commuting all sentences and disciplinary actions related to the riot and its aftermath, saying this would “close the book” on Attica. Rockefeller became Vice President of the United States. Meyer was elevated to the Court of Appeals. And two attempts to convince judges to unseal the volumes were defeated in court all the way up to the appellate level, thereby keeping the lid on Bell’s allegations.
The latest Attorney General brief argued that several things have changed since then. Decades-long costly criminal and civil litigation has finally ended, and the passage of time has removed many privacy concerns. Bell is now 82 years old. Schneiderman’s office had proposed specific redactions of certain names and other identifying information stemming from the grand jury, but NeMoyer rejected that offer.
The passages of the Meyer Report containing grand jury evidence are not the only Attica-related records being held back by state officials. The Attorney General's office continues to withhold more than 100 boxes of Attica-related files from Freedom of Information Act disclosure. The New York State Archives blocks access to the bulk of records that were compiled by the New York State Special Commission on Attica, also known as the McKay Commission. And higher-ups in the New York State Education Department continue to deny public access to artifacts which the State Police removed from bloody D yard and transferred to the state museum; they have also removed these artifacts from state catalogs and refused a request by the Smithsonian Institution to exhibit any of the objects.
Meanwhile, Rockefeller’s Attica records, tape-recorded or otherwise, are nowhere to be found. According to Amy Fitch, archivist of the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York, “The state attorney general took possession of much of the Governor’s documentation on the matter while he was still in office, and those records were never returned to be included into what eventually became the Rockefeller family archives. The Archive Center was never a part of the chain of custody of these records and therefore has never been in the position to seek their post-litigation custody.”
When asked for his thoughts on NeMoyer’s decision, Bell offered skepticism in the guise of a tautology. “Meyer said I was wrong about my allegations of a cover-up. You can accept that on faith or not accept it, depending on your degree of faith in public officials.”
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