The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti

In 1921, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, both Italian-Americans, were convicted of robbery and murder. Although the arguments brought against them were mostly disproven in court, the fact that the two men were known radicals (and that their trial took place during the height of the Red Scare) prejudiced the judge and jury against them. On April 9, 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti's final appeal was rejected, and the two were sentenced to death. Felix Frankfurter, then a professor at Harvard Law School, was considered to be the most prominent and respectable critic of the trial. He was appointed to the Supreme Court by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1939
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For more than six years the Sacco-Vanzetti case has been before the courts of Massachusetts. In a state where ordinary murder trials are promptly dispatched such extraordinary delay in itself challenges attention. The fact is that a long succession of disclosures has aroused interest far beyond the boundaries of Massachusetts and even of the United States, until the case has become one of those rare causes célèbres which are of international concern. The aim of this paper is to give in the briefest compass an accurate résumé of the facts of the case from its earliest stages to its present posture.

I.

At about three o'clock in the afternoon of April 15, 1920, Parmenter, a paymaster, and Berardelli, his guard, were fired upon and killed by two men armed with pistols, as they were carrying two boxes containing the pay roll of the shoe factory of Slater and Morrill, amounting to $15,776.51, from the company's office building to the factory through the main street of South Braintree, Massachusetts. As the murder was being committed, a car containing several other men drew up to the spot. The murderers threw the two boxes into the car, jumped in themselves, and were driven away at high speed across some near-by railroad tracks. Two days later this car was found abandoned in woods at a distance from the scene of the crime.

At the time of the Braintree holdup the police were investigating a similar crime in the neighboring town of Bridgewater. In both cases a gang was involved. In both they made off in a car. In both eyewitnesses believed the criminals to be Italians. In the Bridgewater holdup the car had left the scene in the direction of Cochesett. Chief Stewart of Bridgewater was therefore, at the time of the Braintree murder, on the trail of an Italian owning or driving a car in Cochesett. He found his man in one Boda, whose car was in a garage awaiting repairs. Stewart instructed the garage proprietor to telephone to the police when anyone came to fetch it. Pursuing his theory, Stewart found that Boda had been living in Cochesett with a radical named Coacci. Now on April 16, 1920, which was the day after the Braintree murders, Stewart, at the instance of the Department of Justice, then engaged in the wholesale rounding up of Reds, had been to the house of Coacci to see why he had failed to appear at a hearing regarding his deportation. He found Coacci packing a trunk and apparently very anxious to leave. At the time, Coacci's trunk and his haste to depart for Italy were not connected in Chief Stewart's mind with the Braintree affair. But when, subsequently, the tracks of a smaller car were found near the murder car, he surmised that this car was Boda's; and in the light of his later discoveries he jumped to the conclusion that Coacci, Boda's pal, had "skipped with the swag." As a matter of fact, the contents of the trunk were found eventually to be wholly innocent. In the meantime, however, Chief Stewart continued to work on his theory that whosoever called for Boda's car at Johnson's garage would be suspect of the Braintree crime. On the night of May 5, Boda and three other Italians did in fact call. To explain how they came to do so we must go back a few days.

During the proceedings for the wholesale deportation of Reds under Attorney General Palmer in the spring of l920, one Salsedo was held incommunicado in a room in the New York offices of the Department of Justice, on the fourteenth floor of a Park Row building. This Salsedo was a radical friend of Boda and his companions. On May 4 these friends learned that Salsedo had been found dead on the sidewalk outside the Park Row building. Already frightened by the Red raids, they bestirred themselves to "hide the literature and notify the friends against the federal police." For this purpose an automobile was needed, and they turned to Boda.

Such were the circumstances under which the four Italians appeared on the evening of May 5 at the Johnson garage. Two of them were Sacco and Vanzetti. The car was not available and the Italians left, but the police were notified. Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested on a street car, Boda escaped, and the fourth, Orciani, was arrested the next day.

Chief Stewart at once sought to apply his theory of the commission of the two "jobs" by one gang. The theory, however, broke down. Orciani had been at work on the days of both crimes, so he was let go. Sacco, a shoe operative, in steady employment at a shoe factory in Stoughton, had taken a day off, and this was April 15. Hence, while he could not be charged with the Bridgewater crime, he was charged with the Braintree murder. Vanzetti, as a fish peddler at Plymouth and his own employer, could not give the same kind of alibi for either day and so he was held for both crimes. Stewart's theory that the crime was committed by these Italian radicals was not shared by the head of the state police, who always maintained that it was the work of professionals. [In this account of the joint trial of Sacco and Vanzetti the details of Vanzetti's separate trial cannot find a place. But Vanzetti's prosecution for the Bridgewater job was merely a phase of the South Braintree affair.].

Charged with the crime of murder on May 5, Sacco and Vanzetti were indicted on September 14, 1920, and put on trial May 21, 1921, at Dedham, Norfolk County. The setting of the trial, in the courthouse opposite the old home of Fisher Ames, furnished a striking contrast to the background and antecedents of the prisoners. Dedham is a quiet residential suburb, inhabited by well-to-do Bostonians, with a surviving element of New England small farmers. Part of the jury was specially selected by the sheriff's deputies from Masonic gatherings and from persons whom the deputies deemed "representative citizens," "substantial" and "intelligent." The presiding judge was Webster Thayer of Worcester. The chief counsel for these Italians was a Westerner, a radical and a professional defender of radicals. In opinion, as well as in fact, he was an outsider. Unfamiliar with the traditions of the Massachusetts bench, not even a member of the Massachusetts bar, the characteristics of Judge Thayer unknown to him, Fred H. Moore found neither professional nor personal sympathies between himself and the Judge. So far as the relations between court and counsel seriously, even if unconsciously, affect the current of a trial, Moore was a factor of irritation. Sacco and Vanzetti spoke very broken English and their testimony shows how often they misunderstood the questions put to them. In fact, an interpreter had to be used, whose conduct raised such doubts that the defendants brought their own interpreter to check his questions and answers. The trial lasted nearly seven weeks, and on July 14, 1921, Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty of murder in the first degree.

II.

So far as the crime is concerned, we are dealing with a conventional case of payroll robbery. At the trial the killing of Parmenter and Berardelli was undisputed. The only issue was the identity of the murderers. Were Sacco and Vanzetti two of the assailants of Parmenter and Berardelli, or were they not?

On this issue there was at the trial a mass of conflicting evidence. Fifty-nine witnesses testified for the Commonwealth and ninety-nine for the defendants. The evidence offered by the Commonwealth was not the same against both defendants. The theory of the prosecution was that Sacco did the actual shooting while Vanzetti sat in the car as one of the collaborators in a conspiracy to murder. Witnesses testified to having seen both defendants in South Braintree on the morning of April l5; they claimed to recognize Sacco as the man who shot the guard Berardelli and to have seen him subsequently escape in the car. Expert testimony (the character of which, in the light of subsequent events, constitutes one of the most important features of the case and will be dealt with later) was offered seeking to connect one of four bullets removed from Berardelli's body with the Colt pistol found on Sacco at the time of his arrest. As to Vanzetti, the Commonwealth adduced evidence placing him at the murder car. Moreover, the Commonwealth introduced the conduct of the defendants, as evinced by pistols found on their persons and lies admittedly told by them when arrested, as further proof of identification, in that such conduct revealed "consciousness of guilt."

The defense met the Commonwealth's eyewitnesses by other eyewitnesses, slightly more numerous and at least as well circumstanced to observe the assailants, who testified that the defendants were not the men they saw. Their testimony was confirmed by witnesses who proved the presence of Sacco and Vanzetti elsewhere at the time of the murder. Other witnesses supported Sacco's testimony that on April l5—the day that he was away from work—he was in Boston seeing about a passport to Italy, whither he was planning shortly to return to visit his recently bereaved father. The truth of that statement was supported by an official of the Italian consulate in Boston who deposed that Sacco visited his consulate at an hour that made it impossible for him to have been one of the Braintree murder gang. The claim of Vanzetti that on April 15 he was pursuing his customary trade as fish peddler was sustained by a number of witnesses who had been his customers that day.

From this summary it must be evident that the trustworthiness of the testimony which placed Sacco and Vanzetti in South Braintree on April 15 is the foundation of the case.

I. As to Sacco:—

The character of the testimony of the five witnesses who definitely identified Sacco as in the car or on the spot at the time of the murders demands critical attention. These witnesses were Mary Splaine, Frances Devlin, Lola Andrews, Louis Pelzer, Carlos E. Goodridge.

1. Splaine and Devlin were working together on the second floor of the Slater and Morrill factory with windows giving on the railroad crossing about sixty feet away. Both heard the shot, ran to the window, and saw an automobile crossing the tracks. Splaine's identification of Sacco as one of the occupants of this escaping car was one of the chief reliances of the prosecution. Viewing the scene from a distance of from sixty to eighty feet, she saw a man previously unknown to her in a car traveling at the rate of from fifteen to eighteen miles per hour, and she saw him only for a distance of about thirty feet—that is to say, for from one and a half to three seconds. Yet after more than a year she testified:—

The man that appeared between the back of the front seat and the back seat was a man slightly taller than the witness. He weighed possibly from 140 to 145 pounds. He was muscular, an active-looking man. His left hand was a goodsized hand, a hand that denoted strength.

Q. So that the hand you said you saw where? A. The left hand, that was placed on the back of the front seat. He had a gray, what I thought was a shirt—had a grayish, like navy color, and the face was what we would call clear-cut, clean-cut face. Through here [indicating] was a little narrow, just a little narrow. The forehead was high. The hair was brushed back and it was between, I should think, two inches and two and one-half inches in length and had dark eyebrows, but the complexion was a white, peculiar white that looked greenish.

Q. Is that the same man you saw at Brockton?

A. It is.

Q. Are you sure?

A. Positive.

The startling acuity of Splaine's vision was, as a matter of fact, the product of a year's reflection. Immediately after Sacco's arrest the police, in violation of approved police methods for the identification of suspects, brought Sacco alone into Splaine's presence. Then followed in about three weeks the preliminary hearing at which Sacco and Vanzetti were bound over for the grand jury. At this hearing—only forty days after the crime—Splaine was unable to identify Sacco.

Q. You don't feel certain enough in your position to say he is the man?

A. I don't think my opportunity afforded me the right to say he is the man.

When confronted with this contradiction between her uncertainty a month after her observation and her certainty more than a year after her observation; she first took refuge in a claim of inaccuracy in the transcript of the stenographer's minutes. This charge she later withdrew and finally maintained:—

From the observation I had of him in the Quincy court and the comparison of the man I saw in the machine, on reflection I was sure he was the same man.

Then followed this cross-examination:—

Q. Your answer in the lower court was you didn't have opportunity to observe him. What did you mean when you said you didn't have opportunity sufficient, kindly tell us, you didn't have sufficient opportunity to observe him?

A. Well, he was passing on the street.

Q. He was passing on the street and you didn't have sufficient opportunity to observe him to enable you to identify him?

A. That is what I meant.

Q. That is the only opportunity you had?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. You have had no other opportunity but that one meeting glance?

A. The remembrance of that.

Let Dr. Morton Prince, professor of dynamic psychology at Harvard University, comment on this testimony:—

I do not hesitate to say that the star witness for the government testified, honestly enough, no doubt, to what was psychologically impossible. Miss Splaine testified, though she had only seen Sacco at the time of the shooting from a distance of about sixty feet for from one and one-half to three seconds in a motor car going at an increasing rate of speed at about fifteen to eighteen miles an hour; that she saw and at the end of a year she remembered and described sixteen different details of his person, even to the size of his hand, the length of his hair as being between two and two and one-half inches long, and the shade of his eyebrows! Such perception and memory under such conditions can be easily proved to be psychologically impossible. Every psychologist knows that—so does Houdini. And what shall we think of the animus and honesty of the state that introduces such testimony to convict, knowing that the jury is too ignorant to disbelieve?

2. Devlin, at Quincy a month after the murder, merely said, "He [Sacco] looks very much like the man that stood up in the back seat shooting."

Q. Do you say positively he is the man?

A. I don't say positively.

At the trial, over a year later, she had no doubt and when asked, "Have you at any time had any doubt of your identification of this man?" replied, "No." The obvious discrepancy of an identification reaching certainty by lapse of time, without any additional opportunity for verification, she explained thus: "At the time there I had in my own mind that he was the man, but on account of the immensity of the crime and everything, I hated to say right out and out."

The inherent improbability of making any such accurate identification on the basis of a fleeting glimpse of an unknown man in the confusion of a sudden alarm is affirmed by the testimony of two other eyewitnesses. Ferguson and Pierce, from a window above Splaine and Devlin, on the next floor of the factory, had substantially the same view. They found it impossible to make any identification.

3. Pelzer, a young shoe-cutter, swore that when he heard the shooting he pulled up his window, took a glance at the scene, and saw the man who murdered Berardelli.

Q. How long did you stay in the window?

A. Oh, about—I would say about a minute....

Q. Then what did you do?

A. I seen everything happen about that time, about in a minute.

This was the foundation for the following identification:—

Q. Do you see in the courtroom the man you saw shooting Berardelli that day?

A. Well, I wouldn't say it was him, but he is a dead image of him.

Witness points out Mr. Sacco.

Q. Have you seen him since that time until you saw him in the courtroom?

A. No, sir.

Witness was shown picture of him by Mr. Williams to-day.

Q. You say you wouldn't say it is him, but he is the dead image of him? What do you mean by that?

A. Well, he has got the same appearance.

On cross-examination Pelzer admitted that immediately after Sacco's arrest, on May 6 or 7, he was unable to make any identification. His inability in May 1920 to make the identification which he made in June 1921 was confirmed by three fellow workmen. Two of them testified that instead of pulling up the window he took shelter under a bench, and the third in addition said: "I heard him say that he did not see anybody."

Pelzer's tergiversations and falsifications extracted from the District Attorney, Mr. Katzmann, the following eulogy:—

He was frank enough here, gentlemen, to own that he had twice falsified before to both sides, treating them equally and alike, and he gave you his reason. I think he added that he had never been in court before. If not, somebody has and I confused him. It is of little consequence. He is big enough and manly enough now to tell you of his prior falsehoods and his reasons for them. If you accept them, gentlemen, give such weight to his testimony as you say should be given.

4. Lola Andrews, a woman of doubtful reputation, testified that at about 11 A.M. on the day of the murders, while in company with a Mrs. Campbell, she saw an automobile standing outside the Slater and Morrill factory. She saw a "very light" man inside the car (concededly neither Sacco nor Vanzetti) and another man "bending over the hood of the car," whom she characterized as a "dark-complexioned man." She went into the factory in search of a job and at the time "had no talk with either of the men." When she came out "fifteen minutes later" the dark man "was down under the car like he was fixing something" and she asked him the way to another factory. He told her. That was the whole conversation between them. After Sacco's arrest she was taken to the Dedham jail and identified Sacco as the dark-complexioned man. She again identified him at the trial.

How came she to connect the dark man under the car with the murders which took place four hours later?

Q. Would you say that the man had a fuller or more slender face [than the man in a photograph shown to the witness]?

A. I don't know. He had a funny face....

Q. Meaning by that a face that was not a kindly face, a kind of brutal face?

A. He did not have a real good looking face.

Q. (by the District Attorney) What came to your mind, if anything, when you learned of the shooting?

A. Why, the only way I can answer that is this: When I heard of the shooting I somehow associated the man I saw at the car.

Four reputable witnesses completely discredited the Andrews testimony. The following sample must suffice. It is the testimony of a Quincy shopkeeper.

I said to her, 'Hello, Lola,' and she stopped and she answered me. While she answered me I said, 'You look kind of tired.' She says, 'Yes.' She says, 'They are bothering the life out of me.' I says, 'What?' She says, 'I just come from jail.' I says, 'What have you done in jail?' She says, 'The Government took me down and want me to recognize those men.' she says, 'and I don't know a thing about them. I have never seen them and I can't recognize them.' She says, 'Unfortunately I have been down there to get a job and I have seen many men that I don't know and I have never paid any attention to anyone.'

Yet the District Attorney not only offered the Andrews testimony for the consideration of the jury, but gave it the weightiest possible personal sponsorship:—

And then there is Lola Andrews. I have been in this office, gentlemen, for now more than eleven years. I cannot recall in that too long service for the Commonwealth that ever before I have laid eye or given ear to so convincing a witness as Lola Andrews.

5. Carlos E. Goodridge (who after the trial was discovered to be a fugitive from justice in another state and to have given evidence under a false name) swore that at the time of the shooting he was in a poolroom in South Braintree, heard shots, stepped to the door, and saw an automobile coming toward him, and that when he got to the sidewalk a man in the automobile "poked a gun over towards him," whereupon he "went back into the poolroom." About seven months later he identified Sacco as the man for the first time and identified him again at the trial.

Four witnesses, including his employer, squarely contradicted Goodridge's belated identification. Even when completely disinterested, identification testimony runs all the grave hazards due to the frailties and fallibilities of human observation and memory. But Goodridge's testimony, in addition to everything else, was tainted with self-interest. At the time he was a witness for the Commonwealth, he was facing jail under an indictment for larceny to which he had pleaded guilty. The case "had been filed,"—that is, no sentence had been imposed,—and Goodridge had been placed on probation. The Judge did not allow the defense to show that Goodridge's testimony on behalf of the Commonwealth was influenced by leniency previously shown to him by the District Attorney in connection with the confessed charge of larceny and by fear of losing his immunity. In the light of settled principles of the law of evidence, this ruling, though later sustained by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, is indefensible.

II. As to Vanzetti:—

The Commonwealth offered two witnesses who claimed to identify Vanzetti as an occupant of the murder car. Of these one, Dolbeare, claimed to have seen him hours before the murder, leaving only a single individual, LeVangie, who claimed to have seen him on the spot. The Commonwealth sought to piece out the tenuous testimony by the evidence of two other witnesses who claimed to have seen Vanzetti during the day of the murder elsewhere than at Plymouth, but not at South Braintree. One witness, Faulkner, testified to recollecting a fellow passenger on a train going from Cochesett to Boston who got out at East Braintree at 9.54, and identified Vanzetti as that passenger. The basis of Faulkner's recollection was so frail, and was so fully destroyed by three railroad officials, that further recital of his testimony is superfluous. Finally Reed, a crossing tender, purported to recognize Vanzetti as the man sitting on the front seat of a car which he claimed to identify as the murder car. This was at some distance from Braintree, more than an hour after the murders. Reed's testimony placing Vanzetti on the front seat of the car ran counter to the theory of the Commonwealth that Vanzetti was at the rear. Moreover, Reed testified that "the quality of the English [of Vanzetti] was unmistakable and clear," while at the trial Vanzetti's English was found to be so imperfect that an interpreter had to be employed.

1. Harry E. Dolbeare testified that somewhere between 10 and 12 A.M. he saw a car going past him in South Braintree with five people in it, one of whom he identified as Vanzetti:—

I felt it was a tough-looking bunch. That is the very feeling that came to my mind at the time....I guess that is all. That is all I recall now.

There is nothing other than what he has already given by which he characterizes these men as a tough-looking bunch. He does not know whether the other two men who sat on the back seat had moustaches or beards of any kind. He does not know what kind of a hat or cap the man in the middle, who leaned forward to speak, wore. He does not know whether this man had a cap with a visor projecting out or whether he had on a slouch hat.

2. LeVangie, the gate tender of the New Haven railroad, was on duty at the South Braintree grade crossing on the day of the murder. According to his testimony, the murder car drove up to the crossing just as he was lowering the gate, and a man inside forced him at the point of a revolver to let the car through before the advancing train. LeVangie identified Vanzetti as the man who was driving the car. LeVangie's testimony was discredited by the testimony of McCarthy, a locomotive fireman of the New Haven, who testified that three quarters of an hour after the murders he had the following conversation with LeVangie:—

LeVangie said, 'There was a shooting affair going on.' I says, 'Someone shot?' I says, 'who?' 'Someone, a fellow got murdered.' I said, 'who did it?' He said he did not know. He said there was some fellows went by in an automobile and he heard the shots, and he started to put down the gates, and as he started to put them down one of them pointed a gun at him and he left the gates alone and ducked in the shanty. I asked him if he knew them. He said, no, he did not. I asked him if he would know them again if he saw them. He said, 'No.' He said all he could see was the gun and he ducked.

Moreover, LeVangie was discredited by all the other identification witnesses on both sides, who insisted that the driver of the car was a young, small, light-haired man, whereas Vanzetti was middle-aged, dark, with a black moustache. But, though the District Attorney had to repudiate LeVangie, he characteristically held on to LeVangie's identification. The following quotation from the District Attorney's summing up reveals the worthlessness of LeVangie's testimony; it throws no less light on the guiding attitude of the prosecution:—

They find fault, gentlemen, with LeVangie. They say that LeVangie is wrong in saying that Vanzetti was driving that car. I agree with them, gentlemen. I would not be trying to do justice to these defendants if I pretended that personally so far as you are concerned about my personal belief on that, that Vanzetti drove that car over the crossing. I do not believe any such thing. You must be overwhelmed with the testimony that when the car started it was driven by a light-haired man who showed every indication of being sickly.

We cannot mould the testimony of witnesses, gentlemen. We have got to take them as they testify on their oath, and we put LeVangie on because necessarily he must have been there. He saw something. He described a light-haired man to some of the witnesses. They produced Carter, the first witness they put on, to say that he said the light-haired man—the driver was a light-haired man. That is true. I believe my brothers will agree with me on that proposition, but he saw the face of Vanzetti in that car, and is his testimony to be rejected if it disagrees with everybody else if you are satisfied he honestly meant to tell the truth?

And can't you reconcile it with the possibility, no, the likelihood, or, more than that, the probability that at that time Vanzetti was directly behind the driver in the quick glance this man LeVangie had of the car going over when they were going up over the crossing?...

Right or wrong, we have to take it as it is. And I agree if it depends on the accuracy of the statement that Vanzetti was driving, then it isn't right, because I would have to reject personally the testimony of witnesses for the defense as well as for the Commonwealth who testified to the contrary. I ask you to find as a matter of common sense he was, in the light of other witnesses, in the car, and if on the left side that he may well have been immediately behind the driver.

In other words, obliged to repudiate the testimony of LeVangie that Vanzetti was on the front seat, the Commonwealth urged the jury to find that, although LeVangie said Vanzetti was on the front seat, he meant he was on the back seat.

At the time that he urged on the jury this testimony of LeVangie, the District Attorney had held interviews with, and had in his possession written statements of, the only two persons, Kelly and Kennedy, who had an extended opportunity to observe the driver of the car. The detailed description given by them absolutely excluded Vanzetti. The reliability of these observers and of their statements has not been challenged. Yet they were not called by the District Attorney; instead he called LeVangie. Unfortunately the existence of Kelly and Kennedy was until very recently unknown to the defense, and of course, therefore, their testimony was unavailable for Sacco and Vanzetti at the trial.

The alibi for Vanzetti was overwhelming. Thirty-one eyewitnesses testified positively that no one of the men that they saw in the murder car was Vanzetti. Thirteen witnesses either testified directly that Vanzetti was in Plymouth selling fish on the day of the murder or furnished corroboration of such testimony.

What is the worth of identification testimony even when uncontradicted? The identification of strangers is proverbially untrustworthy. The hazards of this type of testimony are established by a formidable number of instances in the records of English and American trials. These instances are recent—not due to the brutalities of ancient criminal procedure.

In the Sacco-Vanzetti case the elements of uncertainty were intensified. All the identifying witnesses were speaking from casual observation of men they had never seen before, men of foreign race, under circumstances of unusual confusion. Thus, one witness, Cole, "thought at the first glance that the man was a Portuguese fellow named Tony that he knew." Afterward he was sure it was Vanzetti. Nor can we abstain from comment on the methods pursued by the police in eliciting subsequent identification. The recognized procedure is to line up the suspect with others, and so far as possible with individuals of the same race and class, so as not to provoke identification through accentuation. In defiance of these necessary safeguards, Sacco and Vanzetti after their arrest were shown singly to persons brought there for the purposes of identification, not as part of a "parade." Moreover, Sacco and Vanzetti were not even allowed to be their natural selves; they were compelled to simulate the behavior of the Braintree bandits. Under such conditions identification of foreigners is a farce.

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