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.