​​Sacco and Vanzetti -- Were Two Innocent Men Executed?
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Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, the two Italian anarchists convicted of murder
The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti was a case in which two Italian immigrants were arrested and convicted for a robbery and murder largely due to their political views more than any overwhelming evidence against them.

  • This showed that even the courts were prone to political bias, causing many to cry out in protest of infringements on freedom of speech and the right to criticize the government.
  • Many others believed that the trials had not even been fair in the first place.
  • Because of how polarizing and controversial the case was, this divided the country during the 1920's.

BACKGROUND --
  • Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian anarchists who came from Italy at the ages of seventeen and twenty respectively. During World War I, they fled the country to Mexico (like many others) in order to avoid the military draft. However, they had no criminal records whatsoever.
  • They followed Luigi Galleani, an Italian like themselves, who advocated violence in order to accomplish their goals. This included making bombs and assassinating political figures. When Galleani and several of his followers were deported in 1919, his remaining followers went into hiding to avoid arrest.
  • Because of how violent and radical Galleani's group was, many crimes such as bombings were almost always suspected to be an act of his group, at least during the initial investigation.


THE CRIME --

  • The paymaster and a security guard for the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company, located in Massachusetts, were murdered, and $15,776.51 was stolen (likely the motive for killing the paymaster) on April 15th, 1920.
  • Though Sacco and Vanzetti had no criminal records, they were arrested on May 5th, 1920, because it was very well-known to the police that they were radical militants. Furthermore, both men had pistols on their person, and Vanzetti had shotgun shells similar to those found at the scene of the crime.

THE FIRST TRIAL --
  • The judge presiding at this trial was Webster Thayer, well-known for his severe dislike of anarchists; he had expressed open disgust for a jury that had acquitted an anarchist two months earlier at a trial he presided over.
  • Vanzetti was the only one tried for the actual robbery; Sacco had a timecard that proved he was at work all day, but he was still convicted for the murder. Because Vanzetti worked as a fishmongerer, he had no timecard to establish an alibi, though he and his lawyer produced several witnesses to testified to buying eels from him on the day of the robbery.
  • The prosecution summoned several witnesses who identified Vanzetti as the man they saw at the scene of the crime. Vanzetti's lawyer asked Vanzetti not to testify on his own behalf. Because Vanzetti was an anarchist, his political views could potentially cause the jury to turn against him.
  • Webster Thayer supposedly told the jury that although Vanzetti may have not actually committed the robbery or murder, he still deserved to be declared guilty because as an anarchist, "he is an enemy of our existing institutions".
  • Vanzetti was found guilty of the robbery.

THE SECOND TRIAL--
  • In this trial, both Sacco and Vanzetti were accused of murder. Webster Thayer once again presided over this trial, and had specifically asked to do so.
  • Because the court feared a bombing from Sacco and Vanzetti's Galleanist colleagues, the courthouse was reinforced with bomb-safe window shutters, heavy slider doors, and the two men were escorted under heavy guard both in and out of the courthouse.
  • Vanzetti and Sacco both claimed alibis for the murder; Vanzetti said he was selling fish at the time of the murder, and Sacco said he had gone to Boston to obtain a passport.
  • The clerk who had talked with Sacco testified on his behalf, but because he was too ill to return from Italy, he could not personally appear in court, and his written testimony was not deemed sufficient evidence by the prosecution.
  • Ballistics experts did test-firings of Sacco's gun after the defendant gave them permission to do so; two prosecution experts claimed the ballistics matched the bullet found inside one of the victims' bodies, whereas two defense ballistics experts said they did not match.
  • However, Vanzetti's gun raised even more questions. All of the bullets found at the scene were .32 caliber; Vanzetti's gun was .38 caliber. Thus, there was no direct evidence tying Vanzetti's gun to the crime scene.
  • The prosecution suggested that Vanzetti stole the slain security guard's gun and killed him with that. Though it was never confirmed, the jury appeared to believe this theory.
  • Many witnesses summoned both for the defense and the prosecution refused to directly identify Sacco and Vanzetti. A few, though, directly singled them out, and precisely described them.
  • Vanzetti and Sacco were found guilty after the jury deliberated for three hours. Because first degree murder was considered a capital crime in Massachusetts, the two men were given the death penalty unless new evidence could be found supporting their innocence.
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A protest against Sacco and Vanzetti's sentence in London, 1921


APPEALS --
  • Because of the conflicting opinions on Sacco and Vanzetti's guilt, countless controversies erupted as a result of the sentence. The defense constantly found problems with the prosecution's evidence, such as discovering someone had switched the barrel in Sacco's guilt to implicate him, and some witnesses said they had been forced into testifying against Sacco and Vanzetti.
  • Webster Thayer presiding over the trial was also another source of contention. Because of how blatently anti-anarchist he was, many people called for a new trial simply because he had presided over it.
  • Controversy continued when Thayer denied five requests for a re-trial and had outbursts such as telling reporters that "No long-haired anarchist from California can run this court!", in reference to the Sacco and Vanzetti's defense attorney Fred Moore, and swore that he would "get them good and proper", in reference to the two anarchists on trial.
  • Vanzetti and Sacco wrote in letters that they sincerely believed they had been framed because they were anarchists.
  • While in prison, Sacco met a man named Celestino Madeiros, who confessed to the murder for which Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted. Because of Madeiros' vagueness and contradictatory confession, it wasn't enough for a re-trial. The same thing happened when it was discovered that Joe Morelli, a gang leader, had been robbing shoe factories in Massachusetts for some time and bore a striking resemblence to Sacco (the two looked so similar that members of both sides of the case mistook his mug shot for Sacco's).
  • Campaigns for a re-trial contniued, but to no avail; once their appeals were exhausted on April 8th, 1927, Sacco and Vanzetti were to be killed in the electric chair.

AFTERMATH --
  • After the two men were executed, other Galleanists did not respond well. Several bombs were addressed to people involved in the trial, from the executioner to jurors. Even five years after the two men were executed, a bomb destroyed Judge Thayer's house, and he lived in fear for the rest of his life that the anarchists would come get him.
  • To this day, historians debate over whether Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty or not, and to what extent they participated in the crimes. Some claim that one was guilty and the other was not, while others point to evidence that incriminates both of the men or neither of them. Contradictions in evidence and testimony transcripts make it almost impossible to find out the truth of what happened.