During the 20th century, a number of trials have excited widespread public interest. One of the first cause celebrities was the case of Nicola Sacco, a 32-year-old shoemaker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a 29-year-old fish peddler, who were accused of double murder. On April 15, 1920, a paymaster and a payroll guard carrying a factory payroll of $15,776 were shot to death during a robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts, near Boston. About three weeks later, Sacco and Vanzetti were charged with the crime. Their trial aroused intense controversy because it was widely believed that the evidence against the men was flimsy, and that they were being prosecuted for their immigrant background and their radical political beliefs. Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrants and avowed anarchists who advocated the violent overthrow of capitalism.
It was the height of the post-World War I Red Scare, and the atmosphere was seething with anxieties about Bolshevism, aliens, domestic bombings, and labor unrest. Revolutionary upheavals had been triggered by the war, and one-third of the U.S. population consisted of immigrants or the children of immigrants.
U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer had ordered foreign radicals rounded up for deportation. Just three days before Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, one of the people seized during the Palmer raids, an anarchist editor, had died after falling from a 14th floor window of the New York City Department of Justice office. The police, judge, jury, and newspapers were deeply concerned about labor unrest.
No witnesses had gotten a good look at the perpetrators of the murder and robbery. The witnesses described a shootout in the street and the robbers escaping in a Buick, scattering tacks to deter pursuers. Anti-immigrant and anti-radical sentiments led the police to focus on local anarchists.
Sacco and Vanzetti were followers of Luigi Galleani, a radical Italian anarchist who had instigated a wave of bombings against public officials just after World War I. Carlo Valdinoci, a close associate of Galleani, had blown himself up while trying to plant a bomb at Attorney General Palmer's house. Palmer's house was largely destroyed; the powerful blast hurled several neighbors from their beds in nearby homes. Though not injured, Palmer and his family were thoroughly shaken by the blast.
After the incident Sacco and Vanzetti acted nervously, and the arresting officer testified that Sacco and Vanzetti were reaching for weapons when they were apprehended. But neither man had a criminal record. Plus, a criminal gang had been carrying out a string of armed robberies in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Police linked Sacco's gun to the double murder, the only piece of physical evidence that connected the men to the crime. The defense, however, argued that the link was overstated.
In 1921, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted in a trial that was marred by prejudice against Italians, immigrants, and radical beliefs. The evidence was ambiguous as to the pairs' guilt or innocence, but the trial was a sham: the prosecution played heavily on the pairs' radical beliefs; the men were kept in an iron cage during the trial; the jury foreman muttered unflattering stereotypes about Italians. In his instructions to the jury, the presiding judge urged the jury to remember their "true American citizenship."
The pair was electrocuted in 1927. As the guards adjusted his straps, Vanzetti said in broken English:
I wish to tell you I am innocent and never connected with any crime... I wish to forgive some people for what they are now doing to me.
Their execution divided the nation and produced uproar in Europe. Harvard Law Professor and later U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter, condemned the prejudice of the presiding judge (who reportedly said in 1924, "Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day?") and procedural errors during the trial. These errors included the prosecution's failure to disclose eyewitness evidence favorable to the defense. A commission that included the presidents of Harvard and MIT defended the trial's fairness.
Today, many historians now believe Sacco was probably guilty and Vanzetti was innocent but that the evidence was insufficient to convict either one.
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