The Attica Turkey Shoot: Carnage, Cover-Up, and the Pursuit of Justice

The Attica Turkey Shoot: Carnage, Cover-Up, and the Pursuit of Justice


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781510716148
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 03/21/2017
Pages: 504
Sales rank: 1,133,448
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

Malcolm Bell, a former corporate litigator, decided in mid-career to seek greater fulfillment by pursuing criminal law. While serving as a New York State prosecutor, he bravely blew the whistle on the state’s refusal to hold law officers accountable for the extensive torture and murder that they committed during the 1971 Attica prison riot. Heather Ann Thompson is a native Detroiter and historian on faculty of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her recent book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy won the Pulitzer Prize for history.

Read an Excerpt


The Challenges

A reporter's camera captures a young woman, dark hair falling past her shoulders and her face averted, as she waits outside a prison. Inmates deep within hold her husband hostage. State Police retaking the prison shoot her husband through the abdomen, then try to convince the medical examiners that an inmate killed him with a spear. His death, along with the deaths of thirty-eight others at the hands of the police, shocks the nation that September. As the years pass, no one answers for those killings. The woman in the photo waits forever while her husband fades from public memory.

The Attica riot — or rebellion, as I came to understand it — burst onto the pleasant Thursday morning of September 9, 1971, inside the thirty-foot-high, cream-colored walls of the Attica Correctional Facility (maximum security prison), which rests on the rolling farmland of western New York. Slightly more than half the swollen population of inmates sacked their home, captured all the guards and civilian employees they could, and held them hostage through four tense days of negotiations. The talks accomplished much but were officially claimed to have reached an impasse. On orders from then-Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, the State Police retook the prison in the gentle rain of Monday morning, the thirteenth. Their commander, Major John Monahan, instructed them beforehand that he did not want a "turkey shoot." But the guns of the police and a few prison guards cracked and boomed more than 450 times, speeding at least 2,200 bullets and shotgun pellets into the crowd. The gunfire killed 10 of the 38 hostages and 29 out of 1,281 inmates; it wounded 89 other men, many grievously, making Attica "the bloodiest prison riot in American history, the deadliest act of state-ordered domestic violence since the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890." And that fatal morning, a hostage was more than ten times as likely as an inmate to die.

The media that covered the riot, relying solely on the word of a State official, reported that inmates had killed all the dead hostages with knives. The next day, though, the media had to recant because Dr. John F. Edland, the Rochester medical examiner who had worked through the night autopsying the bodies of eight of those ten men, announced that bullets had killed them all. Since the police had the only guns, the conclusion was obvious. The extent of this carnage and the enormity of this official lie promptly made Attica a household word; yet most people have never learned what actually happened that morning, or who did what to bury these facts along with the bodies, they hoped, forever.

Within the next few days and before any investigation, Governor Rockefeller, who bore the responsibility for ordering the attack, announced that the State Police had done "a superb job." He praised their "skill and courage" and their "restraint [that] held down casualties among the prisoners as well." The officers' killing of the hostages was, Rockefeller added, "justifiable homicide." Having thus predicted what a criminal investigation would find, Rockefeller and Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz appointed a special prosecutor, a former judge named Robert E. Fischer, to find out, but they gave him a staff that was far too tiny to do a proper job.

The months went swiftly by. A year after the bloody retaking of the prison, a special commission under Dean Robert McKay of the New York University Law School, which Rockefeller had appointed to investigate and report to the public about the riot, announced that the police had done "much unnecessary shooting." Unnecessary shooting inside Attica, where close to 1,300 men were crowded into a broad brick pen called D Yard, almost certainly meant criminal shooting. But the McKay Commission was a toothless tiger. It had no power to prosecute anyone, and the uproar over its findings soon faded.

Two years into the work of the Attica Investigation, which is what the special prosecutor's office was called, State officials suddenly found a way to hire more staff — not because the Investigation had finally decided to dig into the homicides by the police, but because more lawyers and investigators were needed to try the sixty or so inmates whom Fischer's meager crew had managed to indict. I was among the lawyers hired. A former New York City prosecutor named Anthony G. Simonetti soon succeeded Fischer as head of the Investigation, and I soon became his chief assistant. My job was to give a grand jury the evidence of any and all serious crimes that law officers had committed during and after the shootings. This book, then, is an insider's account of the criminal investigation into the violence by which the State got its prison back — the retaking of the buildings and rehousing of the inmates.

At Attica the veil of civilization parted and the beast sprang forth, wearing the grays and carrying the arms of the State Police. The Official Version (i.e., the line the powers that be ask the public to believe, whether it's true or not) had it that these men loosed their fire in defense against a beast in inmate green. Yet the inmates, who had killed one guard and three inmates during the riot, killed no one during the retaking. They had hundreds of knives, clubs, and other crude weapons, but apart from two tear gas pistols, they had no guns — as the police knew when they went in shooting. The only trooper to be seriously wounded was a lieutenant shot through his leg by his own men. Many of the vicious beatings and other brutalities that guards and troopers inflicted upon hundreds of inmates after they had surrendered made news at the time, but the Official Version asked us to believe that the police had unleashed their fury only upon men who had already surrendered, and that during their storm of bullets, they had exercised professional restraint, shooting people only as the law allows, to save someone's life from an imminent threat of grievous harm.

Most Americans who know anything about Attica think that there was only one riot, the one by the inmates. The particulars of the turkey shoot emerged so slowly, and so many facts remained suppressed, that most people never learned that the police can fairly be said to have rioted with their guns and clubs. And with lethal bigotry. The population of Attica was 54 percent black, 37 percent white, and 9 percent Puerto Rican, while the troopers and guards were 100 percent white. To the surprise and relief of many, the inmates' riot was largely free of racial animosity. Their common attitude was "We're all in this together, race doesn't matter." But to a distressing degree, the police riot was a race riot. Anger and hatred had built on both sides during a previous four-day stand-off between the inmates and the authorities. Inmates called officers "pig." Officers' favorite epithet was "nigger." Graffiti on an interior wall memorialized the hatreds: "Attica fell 9-9-71 Fuck you Pig!" Beside it: "Retaken on 9-13-71 32 Dead Niggers NYSP." So far as I know, senior police officers made no serious effort to restrain or discipline the troopers' crescendo of racist hatred. Then came the shooting. Afterward some troopers bragged, "Got me a nigger."

The very enormity of what the police had done probably helped to assure that many people would not believe they had done it. In western New York many people still insist that the first big lie — that inmates had killed the dead hostages — was the truth and Dr. Edland was a communist. It is comfortable to trust that we live in an orderly land where, except for the proverbial "few bad apples," law officers uphold the law. At Attica, though, the State Police breached that trust as scores of them killed, maimed, and tortured with scant restraint. Their savagery triggered the destruction of evidence by their brother detectives who were supposed to preserve it. This led to a cover-up of police crimes by the prosecution, which was supposed to treat all criminals equally.

While this book includes acts of courage, restraint, and honesty by some of the State Police, it is mainly a crime story in which the police committed most of the murders. It is a detective story in which the detectives did more to bury the facts than to uncover them. It tells of law and order in collision, with order winning at law's expense. On the national level, it joins Nelson Rockefeller's ambition to become President of the United States to the fact that he ordered the armed assault on the prison — after journalist Tom Wicker, Congressman Herman Badillo, and other well-esteemed men who were at the prison, where Rockefeller refused to go, had warned him with all the passion and eloquence they could muster that the armed assault would be a bloodbath — and it links a sudden halt in the belated prosecution of his "superb job" troopers to his 1974 nomination to become Vice President.

I believe that, paradoxically, my inexperience with political realities played a significant part in exposing the Attica cover-up. Never having prosecuted anyone, I trusted that the great American principle of equal justice for all, convicts and law officers alike, would prevail. So I worked to indict the officers against whom we had substantial evidence of murder and other serious felonies. This went fine at first — a stacked deck has to appear legit — but the closer I came to indicting these officers, the more obstacles my superiors put in my path, thereby exposing more and more of their determination to obstruct justice. Indeed, they blocked my efforts so often and blatantly that I thought that any fool will see what they're doing. In the end, the equal justice that I sought was not achieved, and what a Governor called justice was not justice. But I dare say, the results turned out much better than they would have if I had not tried to do my job and then spoken out against the cover-up that blocked me.

Since I was assigned to prosecute police while most of my colleagues were busy prosecuting inmates and I refused to go along with the cover-up, some people think I must have taken the inmates' side. This is not what happened. As I show hereafter, I worked as hard to find evidence of officers' innocence as of their guilt. I simply wanted to get it right. For now, suffice it to note that Governor Rockefeller ordered the Attica Investigation to prosecute, not simply inmates' crimes, but all crimes. That is what our great principle of equal justice demands, and, naively perhaps, that is what I tried to do.

Since I tell this story as I lived it, it seems fair to note at the start that Attica changed me. This book is not written by the moderate Republican I was when the State hired me. Yet most of what I believe did not change. Because it did not, other things had to — my career, income, assumptions, perspective. Attica freed me in ways in which I had not known I was not free.

What law officers did at Attica challenged our system of justice and our proud claim that no one is above the law. It challenged Governor Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, who had done much for the State of New York and wished to lead the nation. It challenged me, and I dare say, it challenged my superiors as they tried to restrict me to a course that they could not admit they were taking. The way that events unfolded may surprise you. It surprised me time after time.


"An Honest Prosecution"

Attica has a way of holding people. The labyrinth of the riot may fascinate them as deftly as the gates and tunnels embrace the men who shed segments of their lives there. I had not thought of being captured by Attica, but I was, and I have seen it happen to others.

I knew virtually nothing about Attica when it chanced into my life in the summer of 1973. I knew they had a big riot in 1971; inmates held knives to the throats of hostages on catwalks — I imagined catwalks like the narrow iron bridges you used to see on oil tankers, instead of the long flat rooftops that they are. Throats were reportedly slashed, then they weren't. The police shot a lot of people. It was all pretty shocking, as is so much that continually happens to others. With my lack of knowledge went a lack of feeling. I enjoyed the objectivity of ignorance.

I come from a conservative background against which I sometimes rebelled. I still remember my surprise in late high school at hearing a teacher say a good word about labor unions. Through the 1960s I had supported U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In the fall of 1972 I had cast my third vote for Richard Nixon for President.

After finishing Harvard Law School in 1958, I had worked nine years for the large Wall Street firm Dewey, Ballantine, Bushby, Palmer & Wood; the Dewey was Thomas E., the former New York Governor who had lost the Presidency to Roosevelt in 1944 and to Truman in 1948. I passed six more years with two firms in mid-Manhattan in the amiable acrimony of civil litigation. More and more though, I compared litigators like myself with medieval knights who fought over other people's wealth and created nothing. Or, I saw civil suits as games of tennis — fun, but not what I came for. By the summer of 1973, I was restless and ready for a change.

I wanted to get into criminal law. The few criminal cases I had ever defendedstood out among my most exciting work. Lives changed. Drama inhered. The courts were taking new steps forward and sometimes backward in the wake of the Earl Warren Supreme Court. Criminal law is a specialty, and a prosecutor's office is a good place to learn it. Though forty-one years old, I wanted to do that. Fifteen years out of law school may be late to change the direction of a career, but better late than always to wonder.

So it was that I answered a blind ad for prosecutors in the New York Law Journal, writing that I had never prosecuted anyone but wanted to talk about it. A reply arrived on the letterhead of the State of New York Organized Crime Task Force. It was signed, "Anthony G. Simonetti, Assistant Attorney General, in Charge." He wrote, "We are now interested in obtaining the full-time services of an attorney or attorneys with prosecutorial 'trial experience,'" for cases arising out of the Attica riot, and asked me in for an interview.

I had already cleared the personal hurdle of my distaste for prosecuting people. Someone has to do it. It is not like being an executioner, who cannot exercise discretion. Better if it is done by someone not dominated by a desire to win — since the public wins when the innocent go free. A United States Attorney for Connecticut told me once that it is important to decide whether the person before you is some poor guy who deserves another chance or a smart-ass who ought to be in. I had already applied to several prosecutor's offices, and they had not worked out. Hoping for the best, I made the appointment to try Attica.

Mr. Simonetti relaxed in his shirtsleeves behind a gray metal desk in his sunny office on the corner of a "semi-abandoned State office building"— his phrase — nine floors over Broadway. The headquarters of the Attica Investigation had come to rest there, after starting at the prison, moving to Rochester forty miles away, and thence to Manhattan at the opposite end of the State. Two panels bearing an enormous diagram of the prison courtyards rested against the dirtycream wall to his left.

Simonetti was a compact man about my age (two years younger, I learned later) and had the dark good looks of the actor Al Pacino. Simonetti had been a U.S. Marine and later an FBI agent, working for a time in the South on civil rights cases. He had prosecuted homicides under New York City's legendary District Attorney, Frank Hogan. Hogan's prosecutors had impressed me in the past as being generally fair and competent.

We discussed my lack of experience in prosecuting people. He thought my trial experience (such as it was) should transfer easily. The aspects that make prosecution unique, I would have to pick up. He impressed me by doingsomething that no one had ever done with me in a job interview. He told me the facts of a homicide he had once tried and asked me how I would try that case. I thought a moment, asked him a few questions, and told him. We talked about some of the problems of the case, one trial lawyer to another. He seemed pleased.

He explained that in thirty-seven indictments to date, about sixty Attica inmates had been charged with crimes, including murder, kidnapping, and assault. He said it was deemed kidnapping when inmates took hostages at the start of the riot, as it was when they took eight of the already kidnapped hostages from the Hostage Circle in D Yard up onto the catwalks on the morning of the retaking. (I would come to know those locations.) No law officer had been indicted yet, but he said, confirming a line in his letter: " ... additional indictments may ensue."

The trials of inmates could start in Buffalo as early as that November. He was hiring additional lawyers to try these cases. Some cases were small, some big. I mentioned my past experience with complicated cases, antitrust and stock fraud, and said I was seeking wide experience. He replied that the Attica cases had already provided a great variety of legal problems, and he expected more. New law could develop; books could be written, he added, about the Attica prosecution.


Excerpted from "The Attica Turkey Shoot"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Malcolm Bell.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword to the Second Edition Heather Ann Thompson ix

Foreword to the First Edition Tom Wicker xi

Author's Note xv

Chapter 1 The Challenges 1

Chapter 2 "An Honest Prosecution" 6

Chapter 3 The Joint 10

Chapter 4 Lawmen Restore Order 16

Chapter 5 "You Will Not Be Harmed" 27

Chapter 6 Programmed to Fail? 34

Chapter 7 "Much Unnecessary Shooting" 47

Chapter 8 What Evidence? 54

Chapter 9 Report But Not Prosecute? 60

Chapter 10 Behold a Handle of Justice 65

Chapter 11 The Shooter Conferences 77

Chapter 12 Trouble Ahead? 88

Chapter 13 A Proper Grand Jury 98

Chapter 14 Cases against Shooters 103

Chapter 15 The Grand Jury Hits Its Stride 117

Chapter 16 The Cases Build 128

Chapter 17 The August Switch 138

Chapter 18 "Who's Going to Tell Gerry Ford?" 144

Chapter 19 The Rockefeller Runaround 154

Chapter 20 Evidence of Obstruction 161

Chapter 21 Obstruction of Evidence 175

Chapter 22 Bathing a Big Fish 187

Chapter 23 Immunizing the "Chief Perpetrator" 199

Chapter 24 Playing Catch-22 with the Commissioner 204

Chapter 25 The Witness Shutout 212

Chapter 26 "Only Two More Weeks" 215

Chapter 27 The "Old Fraternity Hazing" 221

Chapter 28 Rocky's Men Speak No Evil 227

Chapter 29 Leads Going Nowhere 235

Chapter 30 "The Dead Do Speak!" 246

Chapter 31 Suspended! 250

Chapter 32 The General Tips His Hand 257

Chapter 33 My Report to the Governor 268

Chapter 34 Waltzing with the Perps 275

Chapter 35 The Cover-Up Hits the Fan 288

Chapter 36 A Judge Misjudges 307

Chapter 37 Dr. John F. Edland 327

Chapter 38 The Prosecution Peters Out 337

Chapter 39 The Book Won't Close 342

Chapter 40 The Grand Jury Got It! 354

Chapter 41 New York Justice 361

Chapter 42 Whistleblowing 371

Chapter 43 America Can Do Better 377

Epilogue 382

Notes 441

Index 465

Acknowledgments 471

About the Author 473

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