Famous Trials - Sacco & Vanzetti

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To understand the arrest and trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, one must understand the era in which they lived and how Americans perceived immigrants. In the 1920s, people were prejudiced against immigrants and individuals with radical views, and during the "Red Scare," the Justice Department held nationwide raids to seize and deport immigrants with radical political views. The country was paranoid over fears of worldwide socialist power. During this time, innocent people were illegally arrested for "conspiring to overthrow the government." These radical views, which in the 1920s were labeled as "conspiracies to overthrow the government," would likely be considered free speech today.

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti had radical political views. Vanzetti was a self-proclaimed socialist and Sacco was a rebel seeking social change. They both arrived in the United States in 1908; Sacco was 17 and Vanzetti was 20. Twelve years later in 1920, both were arrested on charges of robbery and murder.

In December 1919, there was an attempted robbery in Bridgewater, Massachusetts and the only piece of real evidence found was a shotgun shell, which would come back to haunt Vanzetti.

On April 15, 1920, at 3:00 p.m., in South Braintree, Massachusetts, a payroll robbery resulted in the murder of two payroll employees, Messrs. Berardelli and Parmenter, who were robbed while transporting the weekly payroll. One of the robbers shot Berardelli and while Parmenter ran across the street to escape, he was shot twice in the back. Neither employee was armed and both died as a result of the shootings. At the scene, a cap was found allegedly belonging to one of the robbers and it was believed that the assailants were Italian and Sacco and Vanzetti were identified as being at the scene. Feruccio Coacci and Mike Boda, Italian anarchists and acquaintances of theirs, were also being sought out by the police in their attempt to link the robbery. When the getaway car was found, it was stripped of license plates and no fingerprints were recovered.

Another friend of Sacco and Vanzetti, Riccardo Orciani, suggested using Boda's car for collecting radical literature to store away until the danger was over. The four of them set out to a shop garage to get Boda's car and upon their arrival, the shopowner's wife called the police. After her husband cautioned them about leaving in a car without license plates, they left. In what was meant to be a trap for Boda, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested for carrying concealed weapons. Thereafter, Coacci was deported, Orciani had an alibi, and Boda was never found.

Sacco had in his possession a loaded .32 caliber Colt automatic pistold plus 22 bullets. Vanzetti had a loaded .38 caliber revolver and shotgun shells. If they were not armed, they might have been let go. The cap that was found at the scene was similar to Sacco's and was said to have had a tear in it possibly from being hung on a nail where he worked. The Chief of Police testified that he made a tear in the cap and that it was found a full day after the murders. No eyewitnesses' evidence showed that Vanzetti fired any gun; however, there was direct evidence that Sacco did.

At the time of their arrest, no one informed them whey they were arrested, so they assumed it was because they were anarchists, draft dodgers and aliens. When questioned, they lied about several issues. The police were careless with the evidence. There was no line up. Sacco and Vanzetti were shown individually to witnesses repeatedly which could perhaps reinforce a false memory. The prosecution found enough evidence to indict them.

Fred Moore, a radical from California, was Sacco and Vanzetti's defense attorney. As the trial proceeded, antagonism developed between Moore and the judge, which could not have been favorable to Moore's clients. The preliminary hearing only involved Sacco; there is no record of Vanzetti having a hearing. On May 31, 1921, jury selection took four days and all jurors were men. For 13 days, the prosecution presented evidence. Several witnesses claimed to have seen the getaway car and some claimed to have seen both Sacco and Vanzetti at the scene while others contradicted their testimonies. The prosectuion's star witness claimed to have spoken to Sacco, though later this witness could not remember seeing him in a line up. Only one prosecution witness said Vanzetti drove the car and another claimed that Vanzetti talked to him. The prosecution attempted to get one witness to identify the cap at the crime scene as being Sacco's. Two experts testified that one of the bullets was fired from Sacco's gun and this was confirmed later.

The defense wanted to establish alibis and explain the actions of Sacco and Vazetti after the murders. Several witnesses for the defense testified that neither defendant was in the getaway car; that neither looked like the shooters; that Vanzetti had an alibi for the day of the robber; and four men testified they had seen Sacco in Boston that day. A ballistics engineer testified the bullet offered into evidence was not the same as Sacco's bullets.

On July 5, 1921, Vanzetti testified. He indicated they kept radical literature at their homes, that he carried a gun for self-dense, and took Sacco's three shotgun shells to give to friends in Plymouth who hunt. He testified that they needed Boda's car to transport radical literature, and lied to police because he was frightened.

In a nervous state, Sacco testified he went to Boston on April 15 to get a passport to go to Italy to see his ill father. He lied to police because he thought he was being arrested for his political beliefs. He said the cap that was found was too small for him and that he had a gun with him to keep from his boy. He provided testimony reflecting his love for country and working class.

When Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced, Sacco still proclaimed their innocence. A motion for a new trial was denied. Motions and affidavits were filed thereafter and all were denied even with new evidence being introduced, including the fact that no one could really positively identify the getaway car. Sacco and his wife and the defense committee became so dissatisfied with Attorney Moore on November 8, 1924, that the committee got him to resign. Although his replacement did not believe in the radical views of the defendants, he did believe they were innocent.

In the Fall of 1924, the motions that were denied were appealed, but they were denied. On November 18, 1925, a convicted felon confessed to being involved in the robbery and although the defense asked the judge to allow his testimony to set aside Sacco's conviction, it was overruled. The defense appealed the denial to the Supreme Court to no avail. Three days after the denial, the Boston Herald published an editorial stating Sacco and Vanzetti ought not to be executed and a jury should hear new evidence.

Sacco and Vanzetti appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court arguing the judge allowed irrelevant testimony on behalf of the prosecution that prejudiced the jury. The Massachusetts Supreme Court denied their appeal. On April 9, 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death. Important Americans pressed the Governor to appoint a commission to review the trial, which he agreed to. This commission interviewed selected witnesses while the Governor carried out a separate investigation.

Public opinion around the world increasingly opposed the executions. Vanzetti asked for clemency. Sacco had basically given up and did nothing to forestall his execution. On June 1, 1927, the Governor appointed a committee to review the trial record. Witnesses testified the judge was scornful and prejudiced against Sacco and Vanzetti. The committee, however, came to the conclusion the trial was fairly conducted; that they did not feel there was enough evidence for a new trial and the verdict should be upheld.

On August 10 and 11, Sacco and Vanzetti were preparing for their execution. Thirty-six minutes before they were to die, the Governor postponed the execution until midnight, August 22, to await a decision on another appeal. On August 19, the Superior Judicial Court upheld the judge's decision it was too late to have a new trial. Even a New York paper printed an editorial stating there was so much doubt that existed, so no man should be put to death. On August 22, in other countries, mobs rioted and marched on U.S. Embassies. In France, Italy and the United States, workers went on strike to protest the execution. Despite the protest, on August 22, 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed.

The original defense attorney, Fred Moore, claimed he investigated further after his dismissal and concluded that Sacco was guilty and Vanzetti was probably innocent. In 1961, ballistic experts examined the bullet that was presented as evidence and concluded the bullet was the fatal bullet from Sacco's gun. Whether or not they were guilty, both should have had a lawyer present during questioning. If they wouldn't have lied in the beginning, they might not have been accused of murder. Being radicals probably played the most substantial part in their convictions.

In 1977, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis signed a proclamation declaring August 22 "Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Memorial Day." Without offering comment as to the question of guilt, he wanted to remove any stigma or disgrace form the families of these men. If they were tried today, questions asked in jail without lawyers being present would not have been allowed as evidence at trial. They would have been put in a line up and been represented by an attorney. Motive would have been discussed more thoroughly. It was never shown to the Court they needed to rob the guards for money or had a reason to kill them. So, prejudice, in itself, can influence a jury's verdict.



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Comments 5 comments

jsasson profile image

jsasson 4 years ago from Florida

Great hub, just reading a book about them now. Seems that as Anarchists they wanted to do away with governments, and knew many bomb makers and participated in plots throughout 1919 that make the Unabomber an amateur. Several dozen bombs mailed on two occasions, then 5 days after their conviction a horse drawn truck bomb that blew up a good part of Wall St placed by their fellow Anstchists and Galeanistas. Fascinating piece of history, maybe didn't do the crime, but guilty of something else. Thanks.


ytsenoh profile image

ytsenoh 4 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri Author

Thanks all for stopping by and for your comments.


JSParker profile image

JSParker 4 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

This is a sobering bit of history I was totally unaware of. Thanks for writing about it. Best wishes.


stars439 profile image

stars439 4 years ago from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State.

Very interesting hub. Great work. GBY.


asmaiftikhar profile image

asmaiftikhar 5 years ago from Pakistan

really a piece of worth praising and worth reading.thanks a lot for sharing .Keep it up

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