Sacco-Vanzetti Case


SACCOVANZETTI CASE, the trial and conviction of Nicola Sacco, shoemaker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, fish peddler, who were executed in Massachusetts on Aug. 23, 1927, for holdup murders that were committed in South Braintree on April 15, 1920. The paymaster and the guard of the Slater and Morrill Shoe Factory had been shot dead and robbed of $15,776. Intense interest in the case, in the United States and in other countries, stemmed from a belief that Sacco and Vanzetti had been accused by sheer accident and convicted not on the evidence but largely because of unpopular political, social, and religious views.

The early 1920’s was a time of widespread antialien and antiradical hysteria. Sacco and Vanzetti, both Italianborn members of the Galleani anarchist group, feared raids in the Boston area and were shocked by the discovery of the body of a radical friend, Salsedo, outside a building where the authorities had detained him. Trying to dispose safely of radical literatüre from the home of other friends, Sacco and Vanzetti arranged to borrow the car of an associate, Mike Boda, that had been left for repair at Johnson’s garage in West Bridgewater.

The poliçe, who had been searching for a Buick car in which the Braintree murderers had escaped, found a stolen Buick in a nearby woods. This was identified as the car also used, presumably by Italians, in an attempted holdup in Bridgewater on Dec. 24, 1919. When the poliçe learned that Boda’s car was in the Johnson garage, they instructed Johnson to let them know if it was called for.

Sacco, Vanzetti, Boda, and an acquaintance named Orciani arrived at the garage on the evening of May 5, 1920, and Johnson’s wife telephoned the poliçe. Because Johnson, meanwhile, had told Boda the car could not be driven without new license plates, the men left. Within the hour, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested on a trolley car bound for nearby Brockton.

The poliçe found a Colt revolver on Sacco and a Harrington & Richardson on Vanzetti. After the poliçe called witnesses to the two^ crimes at South Braintree, both men were charged with the murders. However, Vanzetti alone was charged with the attempted holdup in Bridgewater, because on that particular day Sacco had been at his job.

Tried first before Judge Webster Thayer for the Bridgewater holdup, Vanzetti was convicted. The case against him rested entirely on identification by eyewitnesses. However, many of their statements made to Pinkerton detectives right after the holdup (but available to the defense only many years after the trial) were greatly at variance with the witnesses’ own trial testimony.

The trial of both men for the Braintree murders, also before Judge Thayer, began in Dedham, Mass., on May 31, 1921. The state’s evidence consisted primarily of identification by witnesses, expert ballistic testimony interpreted as concluding that one of the mortal bullets had been fired from Sacco’s pistol, and “consciousness of guilt.”

The claim of the prosecution was that the defendants, when arrested, acted as though they meant to use the guns they were carrying, and that both told falsehoods. At the trial the defendants sought to ascribe these falsehoods to fears arising from their radical connections. Thus the issue of radicalism was injected into the trial by the defense. Many students of the case believe the crossexamination of Sacco, especially, was highly improper.

The defense produced “alibi” witnesses, ballistics experts, and many witnesses to the erime, who denied Sacco’s or Vanzetti’s participation. Sacco’s alibi was strong. He testifled that he had gone to Boston on the day of the murders to inquire about a passport at the Italian consulate, and this was corroborated.

After the conviction of both defendants on July 14, 1921, the defense filed a number of motions for a new trial. Ali motions were heard by Judge Thayer and ali denied in 1924. In 1926, appeals were argued before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. This court affirmed, only on the ground that it could find no legal error. Later, another motion was made before Judge Thayer based on a statement by Madeiros, a fellow prisoner of Sacco, that he, not the defendants, had been a party to the murder. The defense contended that the Braintree erime had been committed by a gang of Providence, R. I., criminals led by the Morelli brothers. This motion was also denied and the denial upheld in 1927.

On April 9, 1927, Judge Thayer imposed sentence of death. Each defendant declared his innocence. Vanzetti, in an impassioned declaration of his socialist beliefs, wrote: “Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words—our lives— lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler—ali! That last moment belongs to us— that agony is our triumph.”

Petitions for elemeney followed. Gov. Alvan T. Fuller appointed, as an advisory committee, President A. Lawrence Lowell of Harvard, President Samuel W. Stratton of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and former Probate Judge Robert Grant. Both governor and committee heard defense counsel and interviewed witnesses. On Aug. 3, 1927, the governor denied elemeney.

The committee’s report was severely criticized by much of the press, especially the report’s handling of the charge of prejudice against Judge Thayer. The Lowell Committee had characterized the hostility of the judge’s private statements about the defendants as “a grave breach of decorum,” but concluded that his remarks had not affected his conduct of the case or influenced the jury. A motion for revocation of sentence, filed by the defense because of Judge Thayer’s prejudice, was denied by him. Attempts to obtain redress in the federal courts failed.

Immediately before the executions were carried out, demonstrations, sometimes with violence, took place in many parts of the world. Upton Sinclair’s novel, Boston, is perhaps the most authentic work the case inspired, and Maxwell Anderson’s play, Winterset, the most imaginative. Some writers have claimed that Vanzetti was innocent but Sacco guilty. This opinion rests mainly on ballistic tests made many years after the trial, which are not conclusive. It is general ly agreed, however, that there should indeed have been a new trial, at which ali significant information brought to light in the interim could have been considered by a jury.

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