, Research Paper
Tainted Justice: The Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti
Beneath the surface of economic prosperity and social liberation, America in the 1920’s was a place of great fear, distrust, and prejudice. The Russian Revolution of 1917 had heightened anxieties about global Socialist movements, and any political ideology which strayed from good old-fashioned white-Protestant patriotism was met with suspicion and often hostility. This “Red Scare” resulted in violations of the civil rights of many immigrants and other individuals in an attempt to protect American democracy against the cancer of socialism. It was amid this climate of fear and prejudice that two Italian immigrants, Niccola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, fell victim to an American judicial system that reflected the prejudices of the society it presided over. The Italian ethnicity and radical political beliefs of Sacco and Vanzetti affected the process of their trial and its resulting conviction.
On April 15, 1920, two men ambushed and killed two employees of the Slater and Morrill shoe factory in South Braintree, Massachusetts. The murderers escaped with two payroll boxes, which contained $15, 776.51. On May 5, 1920, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested and charged with the Braintree murders. On July 14, 1921, following a seven-week trial, they were found guilty of murder in the first degree. Seven years later, after numerous appeals and strong public protest, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. These events have since spawned a large controversy as there is much evidence which suggests that Sacco and Vanzetti’s trial was unjust and the verdict may have been reached in a spirit of prejudice.
At the time of the trial, Massachusetts was considered one of the most conservative states in America, and it was from this pool of conservatism that 12 white males were selected to serve as the jurors in the trial. One researcher observed that the jurors were “all cut out of the same bolt of cloth; staid, torpid, highly patriotic, oblivious to progress or a progressive idea….” (Montgomery 83). Unfortunately for the defendants, the strength of their case lay in the testimony of many other Italian immigrants who swore that Sacco and Vanzetti were not the Braintree murderers. These witnesses often spoke very broken English with thick Italian accents. The jurors all lived in predominantly white communities, and having little contact with Italian immigrants in their day to day lives, had trouble understanding much of their testimonies. These testimonies were also easily misrepresented by the prosecution in attempts to incriminate the defendants (Frankfurter 23). The foreman of the jury, Walter R. Ripley, was a former police chief and a strong patriot. Each morning, upon entering the courtroom, Ripley would pause and perform a highly visible, highly symbolic salute of the flag. Before the trial, when the possibility of Sacco and Vanzetti’s innocence was brought up by a friend, Ripley responded “Damn them, they ought to be hanged anyway!” (Freuerlicht 202). By its nature, patriotism stands in opposition to any other opinion or belief that attempts to question or undermine the government. Could a jury possessing such patriotic sentiments have been considered able to provide two known anarchists a fair judgment? It seems very unlikely.
Throughout the trial, the prosecution, led by Frederick Katzman, produced many controversial witnesses. Of the sixteen witnesses used to identify Sacco as one of the South Braintree assailants, none were able to give a positive identification of Sacco at the trial’s preliminary hearings. However, during the actual trial, seven out of sixteen claimed to have been absolutely certain that Sacco was one of the murderers (Freuerlicht 204). Also, of all the eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen Sacco or Vanzetti at the scene of the crime, not one claimed to have seen the two men together (Fraenkel 309). One witness, a woman named Mary Splaine, had viewed the crime from a second story window across the street and from the crime scene. She claimed to have recognized Sacco as the man she saw in the back seat of the car which fled from the scene. More than a year after the crime, she clearly remembered Sacco as “a muscular, active looking man. His left hand was a good size hand, a hand that denoted strength. His forehead was high. His hair was brushed back and was about two to two-and-a-half inches in length, and he had dark eyebrows.” (Frankfurter 12) Another witness, Lola Andrews, testified that she had seen Sacco on the streets of Bridgewater on the day of the murders. However, her neighbor later testified that, only a few weeks after the crime, on her way back from the jail where Sacco and Vanzetti were being held, Andrews had held a conversation with him in which she had claimed that “The government took me down and wanted me to recognize those men…I have never seen them and can’t recognize them” (Frankfurter 12).
Katzman introduced three main pieces of evidence: a cap, believed to be Sacco’s, that was found at the near the body of one of the victims, a gun found on Vanzetti at the time of his arrest that allegedly belonged to the murdered guard, and the fatal bullet. The cap was the same color as Sacco’s and had a similar tear in it, but was two sizes too small and the tear was later found to have been put there by Braintree Chief of Police Gallivan while he examined it for identification (Feuerlicht 215-217). Vanzetti’s gun was the same model as the gun of the murdered guard, but it was a very popular model at the time and no positive identification could be given as to the certainty that it was the same gun. Finally, the bullet claimed to have come from Sacco’s gun was introduced. Although he testified that the bullet had come from Sacco’s gun, later Captain William Proctor said that there was no exact “evidence of coming from Sacco’s particular gun” (Feuerlicht 220). The stolen money was never linked to either Sacco or Vanzetti, and there were no fingerprints at the crime scene. Katzman knew that, based on the witnesses and evidence alone, the prosecution’s case was weak, and it appears that he decided to shift the prosecution’s focus from the evidence to the background and political beliefs of the defendants.
Sacco and Vanzetti were political radicals who supported the efforts of Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist whose influence had spread throughout many Italian communities in New England. Prior to their arrests for the Braintree crimes, neither had any criminal record. In 1917, in order to protest World War I and avoid the draft, both Sacco and Vanzetti fled to Mexico with Galleani and a group of his supporters. During the trial, Katzman asked Vanzetti eleven different questions regarding his dodging the draft: a subject completely irrelevant to the case (Trial Transcripts). At one point, Katzman asked Sacco, “Do you love your country, Mr. Sacco?” (Trial Transcripts) Why was this irrelevant line of questioning allowed in the proceedings? The answer lies in an examination of the man behind the bench.
During the trial at Dedham, Judge Webster Thayer made little effort to mask his strong opposition to radicalism and anarchist activity. There is also evidence that suggests that he had a personal vendetta against the defendants, Vanzetti in particularly. A year earlier, he had presided over a trial in which Vanzetti was convicted for a 1919 robbery in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, and there is evidence which suggests that Thayer specifically asked to preside over the South Braintree case (Feuerlicht 202). Thayer was well aware of his own prejudice against radicals, and he most likely anticipated claims from supporters of Sacco and Vanzetti that his personal beliefs affected the trial’s procedure and outcome. At the trial’s beginning, Thayer made it clear that he saw “no need for radicalism to be discussed” (Montgomery 179). Yet, as previously mentioned, he allowed the prosecution to question the defendants extensively regarding their draft dodging and their love for country despite numerous objections by the defense. Frank Sibley, a reporter for the Boston Globe who was present at the trial described Thayer’s conduct in the courtroom as disrespectful toward the defendants and many witnesses, and was an “embarrassment to the judicial system” (Fraenkel 537). Sibley added, “I have seen him sit in his gown and spit on the floor. I heard him swear…His whole manner and attitude seemed to be that the jurors were there to convict these men” (Fraenkel 539).
Thayer’s statements about the case outside of the courtroom reveal even more about his attitude toward Sacco and Vanzetti. George Crocker, a prominent Boston attorney, recalled Thayer expressing his views about radicals during the time of the trial. “We got to protect ourselves against ‘em; there are so many Reds in the country” (Fraenkel 540). Professor James Richardson of Dartmouth College and friend of Thayer, stated that after a motion from the defense which he had turned down, Thayer had told him “Did you see what I did to those anarchist bastards the other day? I guess that’ll fix ‘em for a while” (Fraenkel 542). Judge Thayer clearly allowed this personal prejudice to affect his decisions and conduct in the courtroom and thus cheated Sacco and Vanzetti out of a fair trial.
The arrest and trial of Sacco and Vanzetti focused less on the evidence that the prosecution presented and more on the battle between American traditions and Anarchy. The conviction showed how society s bias could sway the American judicial system to make a judgment on personal beliefs rather than on the facts presented. The trial remains heavily debated and fuels the interests of lawmakers young and old because the hostility towards immigrants in the 1920 s could not render a fair trial. Tragically, the answers to this complex case evaporated as the switch of the electric chair moved downward ending the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti.