I haven’t yet read it all, but I’m happy to see Heather Thompson’s widely acclaimed new history of the Attica prison uprising includes the story of John F. Edland, the heroic medical examiner whose ethics and professionalism likely changed how history remembers the story. I’ve been doing some research on Edland for my own forthcoming book, which includes a short history of medical examiners in the United States.
The Attica uprising began on Sept. 9, 1971, with inmate protests against against brutality and living conditions at the facility. Armed with knives, a group of inmates seized control of the prison and took guards as hostages. After four days, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered a massive raid to retake the prison. Six minutes after the raid began, 29 inmates and 10 hostages were fatally wounded.
Local officials and law enforcement authorities quickly began circulating rumors about the raid,which were then picked up by the media. New York officials claimed some of the hostages were murdered by prisoners as soon as the raid began, some in horrifyingly grisly ways. According to one account, the prisoners castrated some of the guards, then shoved the guards’ detached genitals into the guards’ own mouths. According to another, the prisoners slashed the guards’ throats.
Many of the dead were sent to Edland, the medical examiner for Monroe County, N.Y. As Thompson writes, Edland was forced to conduct the autopsies in a morgue packed with state troopers, “milling around and trying to oversee everything.” Edland also heard from officials at all levels of state government, right up to the governor’s office. He was under an enormous amount of pressure to confirm the official narrative.
Yet Edland found that the hostages’ wounds weren’t consistent with police accounts of the raid. In fact, he found that all of the deceased hostages had been killed by gunfire. Because the prisoners didn’t have guns, his findings meant that the hostages weren’t murdered by inmates but had been mistakenly killed by raiding police officers. Some law enforcement authorities tried to argue that the hostages must have been shot with crudely fashioned prison guns, but the wounds didn’t support that theory either.
Edland’s conclusions ruined the official narrative. They also put him in the crosshairs of some powerful people. The harassment started almost immediately, when a spokesman from the state’s department of corrections called Edland a “clown coroner” and promised a new autopsy from another doctor they were flying in from New York City. Others called Edland a “radical left-winger” and insinuated he was part of a communist plot. Edlund was a registered Republican who had voted for Barry Goldwater, and Richard Nixon three times. As Thompson writes, Edland was also known among other medical examiners to be a “right-winger.” (He was also known to be an excellent medical examiner.)
Edland only further infuriated state and local officials when he attempted to ensure that the bodies of the prisoners be treated with dignity and humanity. He fingerprinted them in hopes that they’d be identified and someone would notify their families. (No one did — most prisoners’ families heard about their loved ones’ deaths on the news.)
Edland was then subjected to public ridicule, harassing phone calls and death threats. Thompson writes that one anonymous letter sent to his home read, “May your throat be slashed and violence come upon you and your family.” But not all the threats were faceless. State troopers lingered around his home to intimidate him. He faced professional retaliation too, as local police and prosecutors vowed to stop sending him bodies for autopsy. Later, state troopers descended on funeral homes across the region to pressure morticians to claim that the bodies of the hostages had no bullet wounds. (This was just part of a much larger coverup that included hiding and destroying evidence, all thoroughly detailed and sourced in Thompson’s book.)
Unfortunately for officials at the prison, at the state police department and in state government, the medical examiners they commissioned to conduct separate autopsies later confirmed all of Edland’s conclusions. The hostages were killed by reckless raiding cops, not by Attica prisoners.
Edland would later say that the day he demonstrated the kind of ethics and commitment to the truth we want from forensic specialists was “the worst day of my life.” Over the next several years, New York state troopers pulled him over more than 40 times. Police questioned his family and friends, looking for details about his personal life that they could use to embarrass him.
The constant harassment continued. Edland, his wife and their three daughters had to give friends and relatives a code under which to call the house so the family would know the call was friendly and safe to answer. Edland grew depressed and despondent. In 1976 he suffered a psychotic break that required a six-month hospitalization.
The following year, Edland moved his family to Nashville after accepting an academic position at Vanderbilt University. He continued to occasionally testify in court, but only as a defense witness. He told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in 1981, “I’m no longer interested in the state’s case because it seems they have so much power and the poor little guy on the other end who, though he may be guilty, ultimately has not much going for him.” In 2006, an attorney for the families of some of the prisoners killed during the Attica uprising wrote in the New York Times that Edland “died a broken man.”
In his excellent book “Death Investigation in America,” Jeffrey M. Jentzen sums up Edland’s legacy:
Edland’s appraisal of the facts, supported by other forensic pathologists, forced the events of Attica into the public arena. The autopsies and press releases by the medical examiner allowed the facts of the killings to be publicly recognized; without this, the truth of Attica might never have been known. If anything good came out of Attica, it was the creation of a medical review board in 1974 to examine the deaths of prisoners in New York. Although initially it was only a review board, later it required autopsies on all prisoners who died while in custody and changed forever the way deaths in custody are investigated.
In recent years, we’ve seen example after example of forensic experts too willing to compromise their ethics in the face of pressure from police and prosecutors. There was one such story just a couple of weeks ago in Orange County, Calif.
On one level, Edland was merely a doctor who properly did his job. But in context, what he did was heroic. Forensic professional organizations frequently hand out awards to their members in various fields of forensics. Often, the figures for whom these awards are named are people who have come up with new ways to help police and prosecutors secure convictions. Perhaps some forward-thinking group could start giving out the John F. Edland Courage Award. It could honor a doctor, scientist, analyst, attorney or anyone else who exposes forensic malfeasance or exhibits exceptional professional ethics, integrity and commitment to the truth in the face of ridicule, threats or character assassination. Perhaps the inaugural award could go to someone such as Michael Bowers, or to Mary and Peter Bush.
In any case, John Edland was a courageous doctor who was persecuted for his dedication to the truth. More people should know his name.