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Feds Open Attica Investigation

Justice Department to study brutality in troubled prison.

The Justice Department has begun an investigation into inmate abuse at Attica Correctional Facility, the upstate New York prison where three officers pleaded guilty in March to state charges of official misconduct stemming from the horrific beating of a 29-year old inmate.

This story was produced in collaboration with The New York Times.

The federal law enforcement inquiry was revealed by defense attorneys for the former officers who were allowed to avoid jail time in exchange for their guilty pleas and agreeing to resign their jobs at the prison. The former officers still face a multi-million dollar civil suit filed by George Williams, the former inmate whose injuries from the Aug. 11, 2011 beating included a broken shoulder, cracked ribs and two broken legs, one of which required doctors to insert a plate and six pins.

In a motion filed in federal court in Buffalo where the civil case is pending, an attorney for one of the guards, former Attica sergeant Sean Warner, asked a judge to delay depositions and discovery because of what she said was a Justice Department investigation into a “possible violation of inmate civil rights at Attica State Correctional Facility.” The defense attorney, Cheryl Meyers Buth, stated that she had been told by federal authorities that an assistant United States Attorney “had been assigned to the case and a criminal investigation has been opened.” Ms. Buth added that she had been told that “the criminal investigation arises from the same facts that are in dispute in this case,” and that the investigation was not “limited to the alleged assault on plaintiff George Williams.”

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department, where former Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch was sworn into office as attorney general last month vowing increased vigilance on civil rights, declined comment. “The department can neither confirm nor deny whether there is an investigation into the Attica prison,” said Dena W. Iverson.

But Donald O'Geen, district attorney of rural Wyoming County where the 2,240-inmate prison is located and who obtained the guilty pleas, said that federal investigators had visited his office in recent days and asked for records of the case. “I said, 'Make yourselves at home.' I wish they had come in at the beginning.”

O'Geen said that the inquiry did not appear limited solely to the Williams incident. “I think they're looking at broader matters as well,” he said.

Any federal criminal civil rights investigation would face a high hurdle, said William Yeomans, a former acting assistant attorney general for civil rights who now teaches at American University Law School. “They face the difficult burden of establishing that the prison guards intentionally acted with more force than was reasonably necessary under the circumstances. That requirement is difficult to satisfy,” he said, “but it does happen.”

In recent years, according to Yeomans, the Justice Department has prosecuted as many prison guards as police officers under federal civil rights statutes.

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Ms. Buth did not respond to requests for comment. Williams’s attorney, Edward Sivin, also declined comment, but in court papers he asked for the civil case to proceed despite the new investigation. In a ruling issued Tuesday, Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy denied the officers’ request for a stay and set a hearing date to schedule depositions in the case, adding that they could re-offer their motion “in the event criminal charges are instituted against them.”

Norman Effman, a veteran lawyer who has represented both inmates and officers at the prison since the late 1960s and who represents one of the four guards charged in the civil case, said that a federal investigation of Attica would be the first at a prison that became notorious after a 1971 inmate rebellion that cost 43 lives. After a four-day stand-off with prisoners, the prison was retaken by state troopers and correction officers whose bullets killed 10 employees who had been held hostage along with 29 inmates. Four others, including a guard, were killed during the riot.

“I do not know of any prior inquiry by federal law enforcement at the prison,” said Effman.

The March 2 guilty pleas by the three officers came on the eve of their trial on gang assault charges that could have cost them as much as 25 years in prison. The case was the first time that New York State correction guards had faced criminal indictment for a nonsexual assault on an inmate.

After being told he would be given a urine test, Williams was alleged to have been taken by officers from his cell to a darkened room where he was punched to the floor, struck with batons and kicked more than 50 times, according to other inmates who witnessed the attack. Following his beating, Williams said that he was thrown down a set of stairs.

The officers’ plea deal was reached a day after a Marshall Project story about that incident and other abuse at Attica appeared on the front page of the New York Times. At the time, the pleas were widely criticized as too lenient, given the extent of Williams' injuries. But O'Geen defended his decision. “I too wish we could have done more,” he said. “But getting a plea was a monumental step.”