The trial of Sacco and Vanzetti was one of the most inflammatory in US history, an event which still draws ire and controversy today. It divided opinion in the USA, and ignited protests as far away as Buenos Aires, Paris, and Lisbon.
For some, the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti saw justice served on two hardened, dangerous criminals. For others, they were sacrificial lambs, victims of political and economic interests and a poorly regulated legal system.
Today, the 15th April, marks 96 years since the shocking crime which started the whole trial. Close to a century later, the issue at the heart of the whole affair remains unresolved. Were Sacco and Vanzetti innocent?
F.A. Parmenter, paymaster of a shoe factory, and Alessandro Berardelli, the guard accompanying him, were murdered as part of a robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts on 15th April 1920.
On 5th May, Sacco and Vanzetti were charged with the murders, on 31st May they were brought to trial before Judge Webster Thayer of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and on 14th July they were found guilty and sentenced to death.
Criticism of the verdict soon erupted. Then, as now, many believed that the two Italian anarchists had been found guilty of their radical beliefs rather than the crime. Socialists and other radicals protested the men’s conviction and demanded a retrial on the basis of false identification.
In November 1925 Celestino Madeiros, then serving time for another murder, confessed to having carried out the violent robbery with members of the notorious Joe Morelli gang, but the state Supreme Court still refused to alter its verdict or allow a retrial. Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death on 9th April, 1927.
As Sacco and Vanzetti’s executions drew closer, demonstrations attended by hundreds of thousands of people erupted around the world. In New York and Philadelphia bombs were detonated in protest, as well as at the US embassy in Paris.
On 27th August, continuing to maintain their innocence, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed at Charlestown State Prison.
Still the evidence in the trial is hotly debated. Madeiros’ confession seemed to point to the men’s innocence but it was ignored, perhaps distrusted due to his own criminal record. In the years since however, several authors have contested that the Morelli gang were in fact behind the crime.
The ability to analyse ballistics in 1920 was of course limited compared to modern standards. Advances over the decades however, have seen the ballistics evidence reexamined several times, starting with the development of the comparison microscope just before the men’s executions in 1927.
Each reevaluation of the evidence, in 1927, 1961 and 1983, all came to the same conclusion, Sacco’s revolver was the one which had been used to kill the security guard and the paymaster.
On the other hand, some have accused the police of planting the bullet used in ballistics tests, observing that the one which matched Sacco’s gun didn’t match any others at the crime scene. Others argue the gun in Vanzetti’s possession which the prosecution claimed he had stolen from one of the victims, was in fact the wrong caliber and serial number. A book written by Felix Frankfurter, future Supreme Court Justice, in 1927, argued that there was little evidence to support the guilty verdict.
It is unlikely if Sacco and Vanzetti’s guilt or innocence will ever be proven either way (there is also a third school of thought which reasons that Sacco was guilty but Vanzetti innocent). What is clear however, is that they were denied justice. As Massachusetts governor Governor Michael Dukakis proclaimed in 1977, the men had clearly not received a fair trial.
Guilty or not, they were victims of the prejudices of the time, highlighted most clearly in the repeated refusal to allow them a retrial, despite new evidence surfacing.