Al-Jundi v. Estate of Oswald is a $2.8 billion civil damages suit filed in 1974 by survivors of what came to be known as the Attica Uprising. They first sued various New York State officials, asserting that they were responsible for the deaths of 39 persons and the wounding of more than 100 and for the systematic brutality and torture committed against more than 1,000 prisoners. The plaintiffs also sued the commander of the State Police assault force for inflicting cruel and unusual punishment in the planning and execution of the assault. In September 1971, the prisoners at Attica erupted into a full-scale rebellion, demanding better treatment, better food, and more and better vocational and rehabilitation programs. After the prison was retaken by force on September 13, 1971, state police lied to cover up their actions.
Inmate Frank “Big Black” Smith, for example, was tortured for more than ten hours. He was forced to lie naked on a table with a football under his chin, repeatedly beaten in his testicles, burned with cigarettes and shotgun shells and threatened with death or castration if he dropped the football. He was later run through a gauntlet of club-wielding guards and state troopers, beaten, and threatened through the night with loaded guns placed on his head.
The next 20 years of litigation were mainly taken up with motions by the defendants, who tried to be excluded from the suit. In the intervening years, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who had ordered the armed assault on the prison, died, and his estate was dismissed from the suit. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the qualified immunity claims of Commissioner of Corrections Russell Oswals, Prison Warden Vincent Mancusi, and his deputy Karl Pfeil, and ordered them to stand trial.
The case finally went to trial in October 1991 on the issue of liability. After a five-month trial, the jury found Pfeil liable for the torture and brutality of the inmates, but could not agree on a verdict against the other defendants.
For more than five years, the plaintiffs tried to settle the case with no success, while at the same time attempting to get the court to schedule damage trials on the liability verdict that they had obtained against Pfeil for the torture and brutality.
Finally, in the spring of 1997, when all discussion of settlement had ended, the damage cases of Frank Smith and another Attica inmate, David Brosig, went to trial on their damage claims. On June 6, 1997, a federal jury in Buffalo, New York awarded Smith a judgment of $4 million in damages. He was the first of 1,281 inmates to win damages. In a second trial, which followed two weeks later, inmate David Brosig, who sustained less serious injuries than Smith, was awarded $75,000 for the beatings and threats he suffered.
Smith, one of the main spokespersons for the Attica Brothers, told The New York Times, “We finally got justice. The jury has sent a message that people everywhere need to be treated like humans, not animals.” Smith went on to say, however, that “real justice can only be achieved when the State of New York comes forward to provide just compensation for all the Attica Brothers, including those who were killed and shot.”
The State appealed both damage verdicts, as well as the original liability verdicts, to the Second Circuit. In June 1998, CCR organized and wrote an amicus brief for 13 civil rights/public interest organizations, including the Legal Aid Society, the New York State Defenders Association, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, and the National Lawyers Guild. The brief strenuously argues that Deputy Warden Pfeil’s actions in closing his eyes to scenes of torture of prisoners and refusing to hear the screams constituted indifference sufficiently deliberate so as to violate the Eight Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Oral argument was heard in June 1998. On August 8, 1999 the second Circuit reversed the jury’s verdict. The Court of Appeals agreed that there was ample evidence to support a verdict of cruel and unusual punishment. However, the court found an inconsistency in the verdict form that required remand and retrial.
In the course of preparing for the new trial, the Court actively engaged the parties in settlement discussion, and the case was settled for $8 million. On August 28, 1999, the Court determined the distribution of the settlement monies to the Attica victims.
Nearly 30 years after prisoners were tortured by guards and state troopers in the wake of the Attica Rebellion, CCR celebrated a multimillion-dollar settlement of a lawsuit that charged officials caused the deaths and injuries of hundred of inmates and brutalized thousands more.