Joe Heath (JD ’74) was standing at his locker in the old UB Law School building on Eagle Street when he heard the news. The Attica Prison uprising was over, ending in a hail of gunfire as the authorities retook the prison at the cost of more than three dozen lives.
It was Sept. 13, 1971, Heath’s first week of law school. He didn’t know it at the time, but he would spend the next 29 years working the Attica case, representing some 1,300 inmates and prison guards in a tortuous series of trials and civil suits before emerging at last with a final, bittersweet victory. And all of that work, pro bono.
“It’s what people’s lawyers do,” says Heath, 72, at his office in Syracuse, surrounded by the photographs and mementoes that mark an enduring career as an activist attorney.
Heath, his long hair pulled back in the same ponytail he wore as a student, has done tireless legal work for a variety of progressive causes over the decades: civil rights, inmates’ rights, environmental rights. For 36 years he has been general counsel for the Onondaga Nation. In 2016 he served as a legal observer at the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
On Heath’s third day at UB, prisoners at Attica, the maximum-security prison 35 miles east of Buffalo, rioted in reaction to brutal conditions. One guard was severely injured and died soon after, and some 40 staffers were taken hostage. Four days later Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller ordered the prison retaken at all costs; 10 hostages and 29 inmates died. A corrections official told reporters that the inmates slit all the hostages’ throats, but within days autopsies revealed that every one of the 39 fatalities was due to police bullets, some fired from close range.
In his first semester Heath volunteered for the legal team that obtained a court order to halt guards’ retaliation against recaptured inmates, which included burning them with cigarettes, forcing them to crawl naked over broken glass and making them run gauntlets of baton-swinging officers. “The beatings didn’t stop,” he remembers. “So my first research was, if someone’s doing something that he’s ordered not to do, is that civil contempt or criminal contempt?”
From there Heath began interviewing inmates inside Attica, as well as wounded hostages and witnesses on the outside—families, National Guardsmen, corrections officers. He worked on trial teams, crashed on couches between all-night research sessions and traveled all over Western New York interviewing witnesses, a process that took years. He still gets choked up recounting what he learned from the survivors, inmates and guards alike. “I have traumatic stress from interviewing people for so many years,” he says.
Heath was two years out of law school when all criminal charges against the inmates were dismissed in 1976. In 1980 the class action suit seeking damages for the inmates began and would drag on for 20 years. “That’s one class action case for all of the brothers, 1,300 people,” Heath says. “By the time we settled we could only find about half of them. The rest had passed.”
The settlement was for a relatively modest $12 million ($4 million of which was for legal fees). But for the former inmates, perhaps the more important victory was the opportunity to tell their stories in court and to be heard by a respectful judge. “To a man they broke down and cried,” Heath says.
For Heath, the Attica story didn’t end there. He assisted Michigan State historian Heather Ann Thompson as she undertook the 13-year-long process of writing the first definitive history of the uprising and, says Heath, of “the multiple levels of cover-up that occurred from the day they retook the prison.”
Thompson’s book, “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy,” begins with her accidental discovery of an entire room full of long-sealed grand jury evidence about the Attica homicides after an Erie County clerk told her about it and said she could have a look. Worried that writing about the evidence would be unlawful, Thompson turned to Heath for advice.
“I told her secrecy rules apply only to people who were in the grand jury, and she was free to use it,” he says. Heath ended up vetting almost the entire book. It won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for history—and it gave him the chance to look back at what he’d helped to achieve.
“For us to be able to get out the true story of Attica, the brutality and the cover-ups, is really a great accomplishment. It’s something I will take to my grave with pride.”