ALBANY – The union representing state troopers went to court Friday to ask a state judge to block release of secret documents that might shed more light into the state’s handling of the Attica prison uprising 43 years ago.
The union wants a judge in Wyoming County to keep sealed the final two volumes of the Meyer Report, documents that have been locked in a downtown Buffalo office building for years, according to Thomas H. Mungeer, president of the New York State Troopers Police Benevolent Association.
Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said his office was taking the legal route – long sought by some victims and former guards – to unseal the documents.
Mungeer said the union believes the documents from the investigation of the 1971 riot, which includes confidential grand jury testimony by troopers and others involved in the retaking of the prison, should not be made public.
“The PBA has a duty and responsibility to not only protect the constitutional rights of the troopers who were forced to testify about their actions during the riot, but also to those who have had to recount the incident for 20 years because of criminal investigations and civil lawsuits,” he said Friday in a written statement.
“The PBA has stood by them and will continue to stand by them in order to preserve the sanctity of confidential testimony during the grand jury process for all citizens in the state of New York,” he added.
The first part of the report was released in 1975. Schneiderman in October said the remaining documents need to see the light of day.
“The passage of time has made clear that – like the shootings at Kent State, the violent police attacks on civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s, the My Lai massacre and the Watergate scandal – Attica is more than just a profoundly tragic event; it is an historic event of significance to generations of Americans,” according to court papers filed by Schneiderman’s office in the fall.
Some 350 pages remain under seal from the investigation run by Bernard S. Meyer, a Long Island lawyer and former state judge who was appointed to look into the state’s handling of the riot. He outlined a laundry list of problems but found no evidence of a cover-up by Attica prosecutors as some alleged at the time.
The attorney general’s request to release the documents also proposes ways to keep sealed certain sensitive information about grand jury testimony.
“Attica was a tragic event in the history of our state and our nation. Attorney General Schneiderman believes it is time to make the Meyer Report available so the public can have a better understanding of what happened and how we can prevent future tragedies, but is committed to doing so in a way that protects the names of witnesses who gave secret grand jury testimony,” Damien LaVera, a spokesman for Schneiderman, said in a statement.
In an interview Friday, Mungeer said he met last year with about 50 retired troopers who were involved in retaking the prison.
Many still reside in New York and are concerned not just for their possible safety but about “old wounds being opened.”
He noted that no troopers were found criminally liable for actions taken during standoff and assault on the prison. In all, 43 people died, including 10 prison guards.
“I was 3 years old when Attica happened, but the PBA in the 1970s and 1980s stood by these troopers, and now they are all retired, and it is up to us to stand by them again,” Mungeer said.
He dismissed as inadequate Schneiderman’s offer to redact names of people giving grand jury testimony back in the 1970s.
“I took criminal procedure law at the academy 20 years ago, and I don’t remember that redacting names is acceptable,” Mungeer said of grand jury testimony.
“The biggest thing is that grand jury testimony is supposed to remain secret. There is no footnote that says except in historical significant cases … The sanctity that grand jury testimony must remain secret must be kept intact,” the PBA president said.
In its filing in the case, which Mungeer said is being transferred to Erie County, the PBA noted that a state judge in 1981 ordered volumes two and three of the Meyer report to be permanently sealed – a ruling the state never appealed.
The legal papers say the Meyer Report describes the activities by troopers “who allegedly caused injury or death, even though their actions were found not to be criminal by grand juries and even though no disciplinary proceedings were ever taken against them.”
The PBA warned that “these retired members of the Division of the State Police could again be exposed to public obloquy, to insult and possibly physical danger either from extremist groups or disturbed individuals.”
“Indeed, with the passage of time, the Attica disturbances are no longer in the forefront of public consciousness. Thus, it may be legitimately questioned whether any purpose can be served by releasing the last two volumes at all, even if all the identities of the persons involved in the riot and retaking are completely concealed,” the PBA court filing states.
Suggestions by Schneiderman that making the documents public might restore public confidence is a “bizarre prognostication” that undermines the “fundamental public policy of witness protection and confidentiality that is bestowed in our state’s grand jury system,” the papers add.