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Timeline of Events of the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Subsequent Legal Actions
September 9, 1971 – Prisoners seize control of Attica Correctional Facility. Corrections officer William Quinn is fatally injured in the taking of the control center. State personnel regain control of most of the facility, except for the D Yard and the control center, and a majority of the inmates are confined to their cells.
September 10, 1971 – Prisoners elect representatives and citizen observers are permitted to enter D Yard to aid in negotiations.
September 11, 1971 – Prisoners present a manifesto consisting of 28 demands to New York State officials. Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald accepts most of the demands, but Oswald’s settlement offer is rejected on the grounds that it will not provide amnesty for the inmates, a request complicated by the death of Officer Quinn from his injuries.
September 12, 1971 – Governor Nelson Rockefeller refuses to visit Attica after being asked by the hostages, prisoners’ representatives, civilian observers and finally Commissioner Oswald. Oswald and the Governor resolve to retake the prison by force if their next demand to release the hostages is refused. As negotiations deteriorate, the prisoners begin fortifying D Yard and the prison control center.
September 13, 1971 – Commissioner Oswald gives the inmates a statement directing prisoners “within the hour” to release the hostages and accept the settlement proposal that had been offered. The inmates decline to release hostages or to surrender. Tear gas is dropped by helicopter and a near-indiscriminate barrage of almost 2,000 rounds is fired by State Police and Corrections officers. During the assault to retake the prison, 29 inmates and 10 hostages are killed, and many more are wounded. Of the 43 deaths at Attica, four were at the hands of inmates. Of those four victims, all but one, Correction Officer Quinn, were fellow inmates.
September 14, 1971 – Contrary to early claims from prison officials that several hostages had had their throats cut by inmates, the Monroe County Pathologist, Dr. John Edland, confirms that no hostages had their throats fatally cut, but were instead killed by law enforcement firearms.
October 29, 1971- At the request of the Wyoming County District Attorney, Governor Rockefeller orders Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz to supersede the District Attorney, to convene a Special Grand Jury and if indictments were to be forthcoming to prosecute same. The Attorney General in turn appoints Robert Fischer as Special Deputy Attorney General in charge of the investigation. Mr. Fischer forms the Attica Task Force. When Fischer later resigns he is succeeded by Special Deputy Attorney General Anthony Simonetti.
November 15, 1971- Governor Rockefeller appoints the New York State Special Commission on Attica and names Dean of NYU Law School Robert B. McKay as Chair. The McKay Commission is directed to investigate the circumstances leading up to, during and following the events at Attica in September, 1971. Governor Rockefeller granted the Commission on Attica subpoena powers under the “Moreland Act” (Executive Law sect. 6). The Commission’s investigation was separate from other investigations that proceeded concurrently.
November 19, 1971- A Special Grand Jury is impaneled by Special Prosecutor Fischer.
September 13, 1972 – The McKay Commission presents its report (published by Bantam Books), which is highly critical of Governor Rockefeller, the State Police and Department of Corrections for their poor planning and rapid resort to lethal force. It describes the event as the “bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War, with the exception of the Indian massacres in the late nineteenth century.” The report concludes that Governor Rockefeller “should not have committed the state’s armed forces against the rebels without first appearing on the scene and satisfying himself that there were no other alternatives and that all precautions against excessive force had been taken.”
December 1972 - December 1975– In the course of the Fischer/Simonetti investigation, the Wyoming County Grand Jury returns 42 indictments charging 62 inmates on 1289 counts. Subsequently, a second Grand Jury, in 1975, indicts a state trooper on a felony charge of reckless endangerment.
September 1973 – Trials of the inmates who were indicted commence in Buffalo, NY. Inmate John Hill is convicted of the murder of Correction Officer Quinn.
September 1974 – A federal complaint alleging civil rights violations is brought by every inmate in D Yard (or their estates) against Governor Rockefeller, Commissioner Oswald, Warden Vincent Mancusi, Deputy Warden Karl Pfeil, Major John Monahan of the State Police, and a number of other senior officials in New York State government. The civil case in the United States District Court, Western District of New York, is titled Al-Jundi, et al. vs. Rockefeller, et al.
October-December 1974 – The first two inmates indicted by the state are acquitted.
April 1975 – Inmate John Hill’s conviction is upheld after appeal. He receives a sentence of 20 years to life for the killing of Officer Quinn.
May 1975 – Special Deputy Attorney General Malcolm Bell, a prosecutor on the Fisher/Simonetti staff, sends a 160 page report to Governor Hugh Carey alleging that his superiors were actively engaged in covering up the criminal actions of law enforcement officers during the riot and had reassigned and then suspended him for attempting to investigate and pursue indictments against officers. Governor Carey appoints Judge Bernard S. Meyer of the NYS Supreme Court to the post of Special Deputy Attorney General to investigate Bell’s allegations.
June 1975 – The fifth indictment levied against an inmate ends in acquittal. No further indictments against individual inmates are brought.
August 1975 – The only state trooper indicted in the Attica uprising is indicted for reckless endangerment, based on the accusation that he had fired his shotgun repeatedly into a mixed crowd of inmates and hostages during the retaking. He is the only law enforcement officer to stand trial in connection with the uprising.
October 1975 - Upon completion of his investigation, Meyer submits a three-volume report to the Governor and Attorney General. It is known as the Meyer Report.
December 1975 –The first volume of the Meyer Report is released to the public, containing Judge Meyer’s findings, recommendations, and methodology. It concludes that despite “serious errors in judgment,” no intentional cover-up was committed. The Report also found “important omissions on the part of the State Police in gathering evidence,” immediately after the retaking assault was over. He further found that the combination of those errors and omissions resulted in an imbalance in the prosecution. Volumes 2 and 3, which contain the factual bases for Meyer’s conclusion including graphic witness statements of the alleged reprisals, are not released. To address the imbalance, Meyer recommends the appointment of a Special Deputy Attorney General whose “function it will be to review all convictions, all pending indictments and the evidence relating to possible future indictments with a view to taking, or recommending to the Governor, whatever action he deems appropriate.”
December 1975 - In accordance with Meyer’s recommendation, Attorney General Lefkowitz, at the request of Governor Carey, appoints Alfred J. Scotti as Special Deputy Attorney General to oversee the further conduct of the Attica prosecution.
December 1975 -At the time of Scotti’s appointment, eight of the 62 inmates indicted had pled guilty, two more were convicted after trial and three were acquitted after trial. Charges against 39 inmates had been dismissed upon the motion of Simonetti, and charges against 27 inmates and the sole indicted state trooper were pending.
February 1976 – Scotti drops all pending indictments against 24 inmates and one state trooper. The two Grand Juries empaneled to hear evidence on Attica were discharged. In his announcement, Scotti notes, “I have found the unavailability of evidence required for successful prosecution of those serious offenses resulting from unlawful excessive force by law enforcement were caused by flagrant deficiencies in the State Police investigation of the retaking. The State Police inexplicably failed to collect and preserve evidence.”
December 1976 – Governor Carey announces he is “closing the book on Attica,” and pardons all inmates who had previously pleaded guilty to obtain reduced sentences, and commutes the sentences of the two inmates convicted in court. He additionally dismisses pending disciplinary actions against 20 law enforcement officers relating to the uprising. He characterizes the Attica prosecution as “the darkest day in the history of New York State’s jurisprudence.”
March 1979 – Defendant John Hill, whose sentence was commuted by Governor Carey on January 4, 1977, was granted parole and was released from prison.
January-December 1980 –Rockefeller died on January 26, 1979, and in 1980 his estate is substituted as the primary defendant in the Al-Jundi case. Judge Elfvin advises that he will dismiss the case if discovery has not begun by February of 1981.
January 1981- The Attorney General’s six-year effort seeking the release of at least portions of Volumes II and III of the Meyer Report fails. New York State Supreme Court Justice Frederick Marshall directs that the two volumes be “permanently sealed.”
February 1981 – Former inmates and chief complainants Akil Al-Jundi and Frank “Big Black” Smith approach their former attorney, Elizabeth Fink, asking her to return as counsel before the case defaults. Fink agrees and a number of former Attica Brothers Legal Defense attorneys resume their positions shortly thereafter. Counsel for the Rockefeller Estate files a motion to dismiss, but the motion is denied and the case proceeds.
November 1988-1989 – The Rockefeller Estate moves for summary judgment, which is granted on the basis of qualified immunity. The decision is appealed on the grounds that there are material questions of fact concerning the former governor’s duty to supervise the state’s response and possible political motivations for resolving the uprising by force, but the appellate court upholds the summary judgment and the Rockefeller Estate is dismissed as a plaintiff on November 30, 1989 and the case is retitled Al-Jundi, et al. vs. Estate of Oswald, et al., as former Commissioner Oswald had also since passed away.
December 1989-1990 – Judge Elfvin sets a trial date and advises the remaining defendants that he will not consider any further summary judgments. Nonetheless, the defendants file for summary judgment and Judge Elfvin allows the motions to proceed. When he denies the motions in the fall of 1990, the defendants appeal the decision.
February 1991 – The defendants’ summary judgments are denied by the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which instructs Judge Elfvin to set a trial date and to try the case with no further delay.
October 1991 – The trial begins at the United States District Court in Buffalo, NY. Dozens of witnesses including surviving plaintiffs and defendants, members of the State Police and National Guard, and medical and administrative personnel take the stand to testify.
February 1992 – A partial verdict, holding Deputy Warden Pfeil liable for the reprisals described at trial following the retaking, is returned by the jury. They are unable to reach a consensus on the other defendants, but the verdict finding liability against a State employee is sufficient to move the trial to the damages phase.
March 1992 – Settlement negotiations begin between the State of New York and hundreds of former Attica inmates or their estates. Questionnaires are filed detailing their treatment during and after the retaking, and the lasting impact that it has had on their lives since.
November 1995 – The Second Circuit Court of Appeals instructs Judge Elfvin to begin trials for damages and to conduct a retrial for the defendants besides Pfeil for whom the jury brought no verdicts.
May 1997 – Frank “Big Black” Smith’s particularly harsh treatment is brought to light and he is awarded $4 million in his damages trial, at that time the largest verdict ever awarded to a prisoner. Inmate David Brosig, whose injuries are far less severe, is awarded $75,000. Akil Al-Jundi, who has since his release been working as a legal advocate for abused convicts, is too ill to be in the courtroom and passes away on August 20, 1997. His estate remains the lead plaintiff in the federal civil suit. Defendant and ex-Deputy Warden Pfeil appeals the verdict against him.
August 1999 – A Federal appeals court panel overturns the $4 million award to Smith and overturns the finding of liability against ex-Deputy Warden Pfeil saying the trial judge’s handling of the case was so flawed that it violated the defendant’s rights. The case is returned to the District Court, and is transferred to Senior Judge Michael A. Telesca of Rochester, NY. The Court states in their decision: “Given the long history of this matter, we direct the district court to give it expedited treatment. We stand ready to exercise our mandamus power should unreasonable delay occur. We respectfully suggest that the Chief Judge of the district court consider assigning this matter to the judge best able to expedite its resolution. We note that the defendants in this case, who are functionally the State of New York, have done all they could – frequently not without the court's acquiescence – to delay resolution. That strategy can no longer be tolerated. The district court should not hesitate to resort to appropriate sanctions to induce the defendants to cooperate in promptly resolving this matter.” The court writes that “there is substantial evidence that, following the retaking, some, and perhaps most or even all, of the D Yard inmates were the victims of brutal acts of retaliation by prison authorities.” Judge Telesca advises the State attorneys that he intends to resolve the case quickly and decisively, telling them: “Don’t tell me you can’t afford to settle. You can’t afford not to settle.”
January 2000 – Attorneys for the State of New York and those representing the Attica prisoners reach a settlement agreement of $12 million, consisting of an $8 million payment to the former inmates and their families and $4 million for legal fees incurred over the 26 years of the civil suit. The State admits no wrongdoing.
January 2005 – The State reaches a settlement with the surviving corrections employees taken hostage and the estates of those who were killed in the retaking of the prison. They receive $12 million.
April 2013 – Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announces that his office will seek authorization for the public disclosure of volumes 2 and 3 of the Meyer Report, which remain in possession of the Office of the Attorney General but were sealed by order of the State Supreme Court in 1981. Governor Andrew Cuomo lends his public support to the request.
April 2014 – Justice Patrick H. NeMoyer of the New York State Supreme Court authorizes the release of volumes 2 and 3 of the Meyer Report, but directs the Office of the Attorney General to redact all references pertaining to the evidence, testimony, or witnesses derived from the Grand Jury proceedings. Attorney General Schneiderman calls the decision a “step forward.” and advises that he will continue to take steps to make the redacted material available in the future.
May 2015 – The office of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman releases volumes 2 and 3 of the Meyer Report, which contain the factual basis for Judge Meyer’s conclusions, with the stipulated redactions.