Elizabeth Fink, a lawyer who helped state inmates win a $12 million settlement nearly three decades after the bloody 1971 riot at the Attica maximum-security prison in Upstate New York, died Sept. 22 at a hospital in Brooklyn. She was 70.
The cause was cardiac arrest, said Larry Fink, her brother and only immediate survivor.
Ms. Fink, the daughter of a lawyer and anti-nuclear activist, was a self-described “red-diaper baby,” raised in a home where left-wing causes flourished.
She became an acolyte of the lawyer William M. Kunstler, who defended civil rights figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and left-wing radicals.
Ms. Fink was a month out of law school in 1974 when she went to work for the Attica Brothers Legal Defense Committee. She helped sue New York state authorities over the force used to retake control of the Attica Correctional Facility from inmates. The prisoners alleged abuses by guards and overcrowded conditions.
On orders from then-Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller (R), state police burst into a prison yard held by the inmates and began firing. Troopers and guards fatally shot 29 inmates and 10 hostages. Prisoners who had taken control of part of the prison were tortured.
“It took 27 years,” she told the Associated Press last year. “It was not a lot of money.”
The federal class-action lawsuit was tried in 1991 in Buffalo. An appeals court overturned jury verdicts for the prisoners for violations of their civil rights. The settlement was reached in 2000.
Jonathan Gradess, a lawyer involved in Attica litigation, called Ms. Fink’s efforts “heroic.” He represents families of killed and injured hostages who received a $12 million state settlement in 2005. Both groups of plaintiffs still seek two more things: full disclosure of what happened and apologies from the state, he said.
“In essence, what she did was bring to light something that the state wanted to bury: that there was torture inflicted on prisoners in the aftermath of the violent retaking,” Gradess said.
Ms. Fink worked on other prominent civil rights cases and represented criminal defendants, including difficult cases other lawyers avoided, said former colleague Sarah Kunstler, the daughter of William Kunstler. “She believed standing between a client and the crushing weight of government power was a political act,” she said.
Former colleagues said she was part of a team of lawyers who in 1990 won the release of former Black Panther Party leader Dhoruba Bin Wahad on the grounds that the prosecution had withheld evidence in the 1971 drive-by shooting of two New York police officers guarding the home of Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan.
Ms. Fink also helped represent the radical lawyer Lynne F. Stewart, who in 2006 was sentenced to prison for helping a convicted terrorist client, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, get messages to his militant Islamic followers in Egypt.
Elizabeth Marsha Fink was born in Brooklyn on June 7, 1945. She graduated in 1967 from Reed College in Portland, Ore., and in 1974 from Brooklyn Law School.
As a defender of societal outcasts, she told the New York Daily News in 2000: “I don’t make much money at all. But I’ve had a helluva time. There is no satisfaction like winning.”