A bitterly divided jury returned a mixed verdict Feb. 4 in the lawsuit by former inmates at Attica Prison against four former New York state officials. The suit by the Attica Defense Committee grew out of the bloody, murderous assault by the state against unarmed prisoners in 1971.
After three months of dramatic testimony and four weeks of turbulent deliberations, the nine-member jury found Deputy Warden Karl Pfeil liable for the violence unleashed against the prisoners. But jurors deadlocked on liability of three other state officials who held greater authority.
Juror Lafayette Smith, a teacher, told reporters she felt all the defendants should have been held liable. "I don't think justice was served. I can't go back to my classroom and teach justice."
Akil al-Jundi, a leader in the historic prison rebellion, told reporters: "We've got a partial victory in that we got Karl Pfeil. It would have been momentous to have gotten Oswald and Mancusi or one of the other big fish." Lawyers for the prisoners vowed to appeal the verdicts and press for a new trial on the deadlocked decisions.
In January, Judge John Elfvin had left for a month-long Caribbean vacation - over the Attica Brothers' legal team's strong objections - as the jury began deliberations.
Jurors with questions had to communicate with the judge through a clumsy telephone hook-up to Elfvin's vacation home. Outrage grew so great that a judge from a higher court ordered him to return.
Elfvin then forced the jury to deliberate until 10 p.m. each night and all through the weekends. The jurors, who had endured a long, technical trial, rebelled and Elfvin was forced to back off.
Spokespeople for the Attica Defense Committee said they viewed the judge's bullying as a blatant attempt to intimidate and steamroll the jury. The fact that the judge had to back down and reverse himself raised the possibility of a mistrial.
The Attica Brothers and their lawyers labored almost 20 years to get this historic lawsuit into court, and then waged a determined and militant courtroom battle. They have continued to point to the guilty parties in the 1971 attack on Attica prisoners: then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the state apparatus he headed.
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