Remembering Attica

Thirty Years Later, the Story of America’s Worst Prison Riot Continues

How did you become involved? I decided I was interested in criminal law, and the best way to learn criminal law is in a prosecutor's office. So I answered a blind ad—it didn't say what it was about; it just said it wanted prosecutors—on the back page of the New York Law Journal. That would have been August of '73.

A bunch of inmates who had been indicted were going to trial pretty soon, and [Assistant Attorney General Anthony Simonetti] needed more lawyers to try those cases, so he hired me and a bunch of other guys.

What signs led you to believe there might be a cover-up? We had a minuscule staff. And there was a decision to investigate the four homicides by inmates before the 39 homicides by the law officers. In other words, it was a chronological investigation of the crimes, which was superficially logical, but it obviously protected the police, who [had] killed people. And for a long time our office was using state police as investigators—how was that going to work? Those were things I put together when I began to smell a live rat.

photo: courtesy of Liz Fink

August 1974 was the turning point. I had three cases [of officers] I wanted to get indictments on. [My boss] wouldn't let me do it, and he wouldn't explain why. Then we went on recess. During that recess, Nixon resigned, Gerry Ford became president, and Gerry Ford nominated Rockefeller [as vice president]. I was called back early from vacation and told that we're stopping these shooter cases dead in their tracks.

Why did you leave the job? It was one thing after another, and finally a person called me who I knew should know what he's talking about. He said the tapes that the state police had made of their conversations between the prison and their headquarters in Albany during the riot existed. (We had been told under oath that they had been routinely reused, which makes no sense—that the state police would destroy their tapes of the biggest day in their history, the only day they shot 128 people ever.)

I went back to the office and said, "Look, we've got to go to the police and get these things right away." For that, I was suspended.

Who was behind this cover-up? I am certain that Simonetti was not the intellectual author of this cover-up. I believe that it was Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz, and I would not be surprised if there was participation by members of Rockefeller's executive chamber. Whether Rockefeller was involved or just sat back and enjoyed the benefits of what his minions were doing, I cannot say.

What did you do next? I wrote a report of all the stuff I've been telling you and a whole lot more, and I sent it off to newly-elected Governor Carey. Nothing happened. I called his secretary, and she said it's sitting on his desk. And nothing happened. So I got disgusted and went to Tom Wicker at The New York Times and went public.

Do you feel your struggle has ended? As far as prosecuting any of the shooters or the obstructors of justice, that's not going to happen. The people who could be convicted of murder—there are five of them, I think, maybe six—there's no statute of limitations, but I just don't see it will ever happen.

Dee Quinn

Quinn is the daughter of Officer William Quinn, the only guard killed by prisoners. She is a member of the Forgotten Victims of Attica.

Where were you when the rebellion began? I was five years old at the time, so I must have been in first grade. I remember being at home and my mother running around. From the day of [September] 9th on, myself and my sister stayed at our grandparents' because my mother was at the hospital with my dad.

Did anyone tell you your father had been killed? My mother says she just told us flat-out that he's not coming home, [but] I have no memory of that. I think that's something my psyche decided to black out.

As you grew older, what did you learn about the rebellion? The riot was a fiasco. There were plenty of things that could have been done to make sure the riot never occurred. My father was so sure that something was going to happen in that prison that he actually sat down with my mom two weeks before the riot and said, "I have to go over all the bills, the insurance we have, everything. I need you to know this stuff."

My grandfather was a guard at the time. He was a meat cutter within the prison. My grandmother used to bake cookies for the inmates that my grandfather used to work with. My grandfather, I think, regarded some of those inmates as friends. Certainly when the riot went down and my grandfather was in the prison, those inmates saved his life by getting him out.

How was your family treated by the state of New York? Our parents were completely gypped out of the opportunity to sue the state of New York. The state of New York filed a workman's compensation claim on behalf of my father, [and] within days after they buried my dad and the other men, the widows received a compensation check. Upon cashing them, they lost their right to sue the state.

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