Yesterday in Rochester, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced a grand jury declined to indict the Rochester police officers involved in the death of 41-year-old Daniel Prude in March 2020. Grand jury secrecy rules generally prohibit the publication of details from the case, though James said in this instance a judge has agreed to open the files. My colleagues and I at the Democrat and Chronicle will continue to cover the Prude case exhaustively.

Most civil rights-minded reviews of criminal justice in Rochester focus on the police beating of Rufus Fairwell in 1962, and for good reason. Regrettably there are many precedents to Prude’s death. I was reminded Tuesday of a truly outrageous incident that stemmed from violence in Rochester schools during the period of racial desegregation in 1972.

The end of the 1971-72 school year was marked with serious fighting at several schools, notably Charlotte and Jefferson. One Charlotte teacher I interviewed told me he had a vivid memory of crouching in the Charlotte High School library, hiding from fighting in the hallway, and seeing a parent with a bloody butcher’s coat come running across the front lawn of the school to collect their child. It was a truly dangerous few days; the school board later held a series of hearings on what happened.

Two Black Jefferson High School students were charged with reckless endangerment for their alleged role in the fighting. But several students recounted how police had taken the side of white students during the fighting and even thrown rocks and used racial slurs themselves. One of the two students facing charges, 17-year-old Perry Lang, managed to get charges pressed against a police officer, David Cona, as well, for hitting him indiscriminately with his baton.

When Cona arrived for the trial, he did not sit at the defendant’s table next to his attorney but rather in the audience among other police officers. Sitting at the defendant’s table was another police officer, wearing Cona’s badge. When the judge, Carl Scacchetti, asked Lang to identify Cona, he correctly recalled his badge number but said he couldn’t tell which person was Cona. Lang’s attorney asked Scacchetti to have Cona stand up, but the judge denied his request.

Cona’s trick worked: Scacchetti called the tactic “shrewd” and threw out the charges because Lang and other witnesses had not properly identified the defendant.

Lang and the other (Black) student charged during the school fighting later pleaded guilty to loitering. Their actions were “an impediment to the learning process,” a different judge said. “Students should go to school for the purpose of being students.” Judge Scacchetti, meanwhile, continued serving on City Court until 1981, when he was convicted of extortion and sent to federal prison.

Source: Democrat and Chronicle Aug. 19, 1972; Nov. 16, 1972.

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