Sacco and Vanzetti

Sacco and Vanzetti
Sacco and Vanzetti

Anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were sentenced to death in July 1921 for the murders of Frederick Parmenter and Alessandro Berardelli, employees of the Slater and Merrill Shoe Company who were killed by robbers during a payroll holdup in South Braintree, Massachusetts, in April 1920.

Among others implicated in a conspiracy to frame Sacco and Vanzetti for crimes they did not commit were the district attorney of Plymouth and Norfolk Counties, Frederick G. Katzmann, the assistant district attorney, Harold Williams, and Walter Ripley, the foreman of the jury during Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s trial.

Debates regarding the existence of a conspiracy have focused upon significant flaws in the testimony of several prosecution eyewitnesses, the dubious quality of evidence offered by ballistics experts, and the “Medeiros Confession,” in which a convicted murderer would later admit to carrying out the killings himself.

Were Sacco and Vanzetti the victims of a conspiracy to frame them for murders they did not commit? In the febrile political climate marked by outbursts of “red scares” in the United States during the immediate postwar years, it is certainly safe to say that few on the U.S. Left were confident that left-wing anarchists like Sacco and Vanzetti would receive a fair trial.

As the postwar U.S. economy went into recession, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and a series of bitter confrontations between employers and organized workers at home fueled the red scare of 1918–1920, a wave of beatings, arrests, and deportations whose scale would dwarf the more infamous McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s, and that would cripple significant constituencies within the U.S. Left throughout the 1920s.

The highly charged political atmosphere in U.S. cities was intensified in April 1919, with the discovery of an anarchist plot to bomb a list of prominent public figures, including Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, John D. Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan.

Whether or not Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent victims of a conspiracy (Saccos’s guilt was widely assumed even by members of his own defense teams, as was Vanzetti’s innocence), the widespread collusion of the courts in the political purges of the red scare suggests that once charged the anarchists stood little chance of acquittal.

Prosecuting District Attorney Katzmann became famous for his closing address to the jury, in which he implied that a successful conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti would amount to a patriotic duty well discharged. After the trial, the first of eight eventual motions for a retrial would cite the jury foreman for his observation that, guilty or not, the anarchists “ought to hang anyway.”

Flawed Trial

From its opening on 31 May 1921, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, in Dedham, Massachusetts, was steeped in controversy. After four days of jury selection, only seven jurors had been selected from a pool of 500 interviewees.

Instructing the local sheriff to round up a further 200 suitable candidates, Judge Webster Thayer dismissed defense objections about the “arbitrary” manner in which the jury had been assembled. When proceedings finally began, a number of witnesses for the prosecution offered testimony that conflicted with statements they had previously made to the police.

Of the seven eyewitnesses who had placed Sacco at or close by the scene of the murders, no witnesses were consistently sure that they had correctly identified the defendant, and no one at all was able to testify that Vanzetti had been present during the shootings.

Sacco’s alibi, placing him in Boston on the day of the murders, was supported by seven witnesses, while Vanzetti’s claim that he was selling fish in Plymouth was supported by another six.

Despite the testimony of two defense experts who advised that none of the bullets fired at the crime scene could have come from Sacco’s pistol, the jury chose to believe the evidence of a ballistics expert for the prosecution, who offered the opinion that one of the bullets was “consistent” with having being fired by the defendant’s gun (his careful choice of language being seen by some at the time as a deliberate attempt to mislead the jury as to Sacco’s guilt).

From the pool of circumstantial evidence brought against Vanzetti, the prosecution made much of the fact that the weapon Vanzetti was carrying when he was arrested had undergone a similar repair to the gun carried by the victim Berardelli on the day he was shot. Documents made public in 1977, however, would show that the weapon found on Vanzetti was of a different caliber than the one carried by Berardelli.

By mid-June the defense had attempted to impeach the testimony of one of the prosecution “eyewitnesses,” on the grounds that a larceny charge made against him had been dropped as “payment” for his testimony.

By the end of the month another witness had told the court that the prosecution eyewitness Lola Andrews, who would later retract her testimony, was unable to identify either of the defendants and had been coerced into doing so by a “government agent.” Following the return of guilty verdicts on both defendants, the eight different motions for a new trial (the penultimate one made to the Supreme Court in May 1926) were all refused.

The second of these motions, made in May 1922, raised the prospect of a serious scandal when it cited the retraction of one eyewitness’s testimony locating Sacco at the scene, and accused the assistant district attorney of leaning on witnesses to fabricate testimony.

Two weeks after the Supreme Court decision a final motion for retrial was filed on the grounds that a confession by Celestino Medeiros, a Portugese convict who had himself been imprisoned for murder in the United States, made the convictions of Sacco and Vanzetti unsafe.

Medeiros was a member of the Morelli Gang, a well-known group of freightcar robbers whom police had originally listed as suspects for the South Braintree murders. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed on 23 August 1927. Celestino Medeiros was executed with them.