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Attica Justice -- Served 26 Years Later

The old Italian proverb postulates that "revenge is a dish best served cold." Justice is a dish also usually served cold, although those with a taste for justice rarely prefer it so. Maybe somebody should ask Frank Smith.

Twenty-six years after Smith was beaten and tortured in an orgy of revenge (served hot and fresh, by the way) by guards who had retaken Attica prison in September, 1971, the former Attica prisoner was awarded $4 million in damages by a federal court jury in Buffalo.

The plaintiff, Frank Smith, now 64, was forced to walk over broken glass, beaten with batons, locked in his cell for four days and burned with cigarettes. Smith testified that he was forced to lie naked on a picnic table for five hours holding a football with his chin. Guards told him if he allowed the ball to roll away he would be castrated or killed. While he lay on the table, guards struck his testicles with batons and dropped lighted cigarettes and shell casings on his body. Later, he said, he was beaten until both his wrists were broken and prison officials played one-man Russian roulette with him.

Smith is the first of 1,281 prisoner plaintiffs, many now dead, to win damages in a $2.8 billion civil liability suit filed in 1974. Elizabeth Fink, the principal lawyer for Smith and the other prisoner plaintiffs, has spent her entire career on the case. She said the plaintiffs' goal was still an overall monetary settlement with the state. The state, however, has refused to settle, which is why Smith's case went to trial. Ms. Fink said that Smith's $4 million award could become a yardstick for damages to the remaining former prisoners in the case.

The June 5, 1997 verdict by a seven-member jury marked the end of the monetary phase of a trial whose facts were determined in a 1992 trial before the same judge. A jury then concluded that former Attica deputy warden Karl Pfeil was liable for having overseen the brutal reprisals against Smith and other Attica prisoners. Although Pfeil was held personally responsible (and other prison and state officials were not), lawyers for both sides agreed that New York State would wind up paying any monetary damages, because state officials are indemnified for the performance of their duties.

"It was plainly excessive," Pfeil's lawyer, Mitchell Banas, told The Associated Press. "We had a runaway jury here. They obviously based their decision [on the amount of monetary damages] not on evidence, but on emotion or sympathy or punishment."

For more background on the 1971 Attica uprising see: "Remembering Attica: Twenty Years Later," PLN Vol. 2, No. 9; and "Attica: Looking Back 25 Years," PLN Vol. 7, No. 10.

NY Times

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