Sacco and Vanzetti


One of the most important cases in American criminal justice history is the Sacco and Vanzetti case.  The reason it is famous is that it is clear to most people that these two Italian Americans were innocent and that the reason they were found guilty and executed was due to the fact that they were immigrants who held unpopular political views.


The time was 1920 and Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested for the murder of a payroll master.  It was an era during which the American government feared communism because the Russian revolution had been successful.  The Attorney General of the United States, A. Mitchell Palmer, was making public statements that anyone who belonged to any radical movement was a potential murderer.  Palmer's house had been bombed and he assumed radicals had committed this crime.  This was only one of a string of crimes against government officials in 1919 and 1920.  Palmer was thinking of running for Presidency and he was going to use the "Red Menace" (communism) to win votes.  Thousands of arrests and hundreds of deportations took place. 


"Palmer had engineered raids on homes and union headquarters.  On a single night in January 1920, he had 4,000 alleged communists arrested in 33 cities, the majority of whom had no connection to radicalism of any kind.  Hundreds were seized on trumped-up charges, detained in jails and not fed, later to be found innocent of illegal plots.  All this fueled the activities of peddlers of hate, of those advocating anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism such as the Ku Klux Klan.  The result was that hatemonger and pro-American fever combined to produce increasingly more nasty groups who gained influence beneath a cloud of national distrust.  But not only were communists and socialists targeted; avowed anarchists and those learning toward anarchy were included as well.  At the time, the popular image of an anarchist was a bomb-throwing Italian who was hell-bent on overthrowing the government.  In reality, anarchists favored self-government of small social units, and many Italian immigrants---because of the political conditions in their homeland---were drawn to this concept.  The leading figure in the anarchist movement in the United States was Luigi Galleani, a dynamic speaker who commanded the respect of thousands of followers including Sacco and Vanzetti" (pp. 17-18, Famous Crimes Revisited).


World War One had recently ended.  Gangsters were in the headlines with regularity.  The American public was being manipulated by government officials, by the press, by the leaders of big business to suspect and protect. 


Sacco and Vanzetti both came to America in 1908.   Sacco was 17 at the time and Vanzetti was 20.  Sacco eventually married and had two children and worked as a shoe edger.  Vanzetti was a bachelor and supported himself as a fish peddler.  They lived in Massachusetts.  It was their lives in America that turned them into radicals.  The poverty, social injustice, and prejudice they experienced and witnessed made them anarchists.  They advocated the overthrow of government by the force of ideas, not by the force of violence.  The two men first met on a picket line in 1917.  When World War One broke out, both Sacco and Vanzetti went to Mexico to avoid the war as they were opposed to all wars and they were aware that under the Immigration Act of 1917 they could be deported for their anarchist activities.  They believed the teachings of Galleani that wars made the rich richer at the expense of the working class.


The events of the times helped create a mind-set in the jury that helped ensure their conviction.  But, just to make sure that the jury understood what they were expected to do, Judge Webster Thayer made sure that the jury would deliver the "correct" verdict when in his charge to the jury he likened their jury duty to that of patriotic servicemen who had served abroad in the war---a way of telegraphing to the jury his feelings that Sacco and Vanzetti were not patriots as they had fled to Mexico to avoid the war.


So, the judge was ready to convict them and so was the jury before the case began.  The general public was also ready to do the same with the support of the government and the press.  In short, two innocent men were about to be convicted because people wanted to find someone like THEM (Italian anarchists) guilty of the crime.  This is a very important lesson, as it will be repeated in trial after trail and still is happening today.  People are often found innocent or guilty on the basis of what the prosecution team and the jury FEEL is the right thing to do rather than on the basis of the facts and evidence.


However, having a slam-dunk case was not enough for the prosecution.  They went one big step further.  To make sure that the jury saw these two men as the guilty parties, before trying them on the murder charge, the district attorney had Vanzetti convicted of a holdup.  This is one of the tricks that DA's perform---convict someone of a lesser crime before the major one and you help create within prospective jurors an attitude in favor of conviction.  The fact that Vanzetti was innocent of the lesser crime was irrelevant because he was convicted!  The police knew he was innocent and the DA knew it as well and that didn't stop him from being convicted, as it was a way to help ensure that he would be convicted of the murder along with Sacco.


The crime that Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted of was a crime committed by a gang of professional crooks, not by two immigrant anarchists.  But the DA and the jury didn't want to see it this way.   Also, just to make sure things went their way, the DA saw to it that no Italian Americans were members of the jury.


Another game that the DA played was to hide evidence.  The failure to fully disclose evidence to the defense team is still a game played to this day.  For example, in the Sacco and Vanzetti case the DA knew that Sacco's gun could not be tied to the crime but asked questions that left the impression that it was. 





Dr. Henry Lee, one of the world's foremost forensic scientists, reviews the Sacco and Vanzetti evidence in his and Dr. Jerry Labriola's book: FAMOUS CRIMES REVISITED, (Strong Books: Southington, CT, 2001).  Their conclusions are inescapable when the evidence is thoroughly reviewed.  Sacco and Vanzetti were framed by the DA and they were convicted by a jury that was looking for someone to blame and eager for that person to be an Italian American anarchist.  At the time of the trial it was obvious to Europeans that this was more a lynching than a trial and an international uproar ensued over the case---but nothing stopped us from executing them.


Since these types of unfair trials continue to this day, it raises the question as to how we might change the system.  We cannot trust the prosecution to conduct a fair and impartial trial.  They tend to be focused more on winning than on justice.  We cannot trust the judges because they also have their biases and they often have to think in terms of their political futures just as the DA does.  What we are beginning to increasingly trust is the evidence, because science is becoming an ever more powerful ally to both the prosecution and the defense teams.  But in certain cases we have little or no evidence to scientifically review.  What then?


Should we do more to educate juries so that they are less likely to be manipulated by both the prosecution and the defense teams?   Might not the best insurance against corruption and lies be the effective education of a citizenry?  Should critical thinking skills be the primary content of education for everyone from Kindergarten through graduate school?