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Attica at 40


The slaughter at Attica prison in upstate New York—29 convicts and 10 hostages shot to death by State Troopers, correctional officials, and anyone with a rifle who could get up on one of the rooftops looking down at D-yard—happened 40 years ago next week.

I’ve never found any compelling reasons for the slaughter other than Nelson D. Rockefeller’s hope to mount one more presidential campaign and to convince conservatives that he wasn’t a liberal wuss. How else do you do that in a liberal state other than by cutting aid to education, slashing support services to the poor, or getting tough with convicts? It would be Rockefeller’s successors who cut holes in the social safety net and slashed support for education. Rockefeller thought killing convicts would suffice for him. It didn’t. He never made it beyond Gerald Ford’s appointed vice president.

There have been two legal settlements to Attica—one giving not enough money to the surviving convicts and the other giving not enough money to the surviving hostages—but the event itself remains an open sore.

After all these years, after looking at all of the posted photographs from the Attica retaking and the photos that were introduced as evidence in the trial, there are two images that remain more disturbing to me than all the others.

One is of a prisoner named Kenneth Molloy whose eyes were shot out after he was dead or while he was dying. Three men, one with buckled shoes, another with checked pants, stand around him, I assume looking down at his body. The gunfire that wounded or killed Kenneth Molloy came from State Police, prison guards, local law enforcement people, and folks who had a connection that got them up their on the roof carrying a weapon. Attendance was never taken and the bullets that killed people were never matched with the weapons of the people taking part in the turkey shoot.

But Kenneth Molloy’s eyes weren’t blown out by any of the rooftop shooters. Those wounds were from a handgun at close range. After everything was under control and calm, someone leaned over him and blew out his eyes with a .357 magnum.

The other image that still remains troublesome is of a man named James Robinson, who was killed by a bullet through his throat.

There are four photographs of James Robertson in the state police files that made their way into the evidence file of the prisoners’ Federal civil rights lawsuit that went to court before Judge John Elfvin in Buffalo in 1991. Judge Elfin (who worked on one of Nelson Rockefeller’s campaigns and who was appointed to the bench by Gerald Ford) did not let jurors see any of the photographs of James Robertson (or Kenneth Molloy or any of the other killed or tortured Attica prisoners), though he did promise the convicts’ attorneys that he would let the jurors look at the photographs once they retired to the jury room. When that moment came he decided that the photographs might be too confusing, so the jurors didn’t get to see them then either. That kind of capriciousness from the bench might have been one of the reasons a superior court threw out everything Judge Elfin did in that 20-year-old lawsuit, and forced a settlement that should have come years earlier.

The four photographs of James Robertson bear no time stamp. They’re not like current digital image files, that tell you (if the camera clock is set and nobody has tinkered with the metadata) exactly when and in what order pictures were taken. With the four photos of James Robertson we can only infer. But infer we can.

One is in color. He wears a green football helmet; there is a bullet hole in the left side of his neck and a puddle of blood under his head.  A comb is next to his right hip. Under his right hand is a crude scimitar, with what looks like electrical tape around the handle. It’s the sort of thing you’d see in a high school play. To go by this photograph, presumably, James Robertson was an armed man, dangerous to the end.

But then there is a black and white photograph in which everything is exactly the same—except there is no scimitiar. It’s just James Robertson dead, wearing his absurd  football helmet, with that hole in his neck and comb by his hip and pool of blood beneath his head.

The question at this point is, which photo is first? If it’s the color photo with the scimitar, then he was a dangerous guy, or at least someone might have thought he was. If if it’s the black and white photo, then he was just a guy they shot to death, like all the other guys they shot to death that day.

There are two other photos that establish a timeline. One shows Robertson with an athletic observation chair to the side of his body; everything else about his body, the ground, a rag, and the fence with a hole by the post is the same.

And the last shows his body in the same position, but the chair almost totally covering it. Someone walks by, pistol in hand. It’s obviously close to the killing time.

It is unlikely that the chair would have moved to cover his body or that the scimitar would have been there before the chair. The order of the photos must be the reverse of the way you’ve just seen them: first he is shot to death and falls with the chair covering his body. Then the chair is pushed to the side of his body. Then his body with no chair and no scimitar Then his body with the scimitar.

Why, after the incredible slaughter in Attica’s D-Yard that shot everyone on the catwalks, convicts and hostages alike, as well as scores in the yard itself, would anyone bother to move that huge chair and go and find a scimitar and place it under a dead man’s hand? Why would anyone lean over and shoot out the eyes of a man already dead or close to it?

You ask questions like that and so do I, but you and I don’t do things like that. The people who did them have said nothing. No court of law has forced them to.

There have been lawsuit settlements—some of the prisoners got money for the torture and mutilations in the course of and after the retaking, and some of the guards  and their families got compensation.

But no one has ever said why it was necessary to do all that killing in the first place, why it was necessary to put a phony weapon in a dead man’s hand, or why it was necessary to shoot out a dead man’s eyes. Or why not one single person who took part in that random slaughter, mutilation, torture, and falsification of evidence ever stood before the law.

We mark the 40th anniversary of the slaughter at Attica. But there is no closure to it. Justice has not been done and it never will be.

Bruce Jackson’s next book, co-authored with Diane Christian and to be published in April by University of North Carolina Press and Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, is “In this timeless time”: Living and Dying on Death Row in America.

Bruce Jackson’s most recent books are Inside the Wire: Photographs from Texas and Arkansas Prison (University of Texas Press, 2013) and In This Timeless Time Living and Dying on Death Row in America (with Diane Christian, University of North Carolina Press, 2012). He is SUNY Distinguished Professor and James Agee Professor of American Culture at University at Buffalo

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