Sacco and Vanzetti: The Never-ending Wrong - LawNow Magazine

Sacco and Vanzetti: The Never-ending Wrong

Law and Literature Column

I’ve got no time to tell this tale
the dicks and bulls are on my trail
But I’ll remember these two good men
That died to show me how to live             

-Woody Guthrie, Two Good Men, from Ballads of Sacco and Vanzetti


I have long been fascinated by the American case that was undoubtedly the cause celebre of the early twentieth century: the trial and conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti for murder, followed by their executions in 1927. While the judiciary and the state apparatus in Massachusetts no doubt hoped that the death penalty would bring finality and a quelling of the roar of discontent, the reality was rather different. Marches and protests continued, with violent scuffles in Boston and major protests in capitals around the globe. Further, a steady stream of articles, books and dramas for stage and screen have been penned throughout the twentieth century.

One of the most helpful accounts of the trial is that of crusading attorney William Kunstler, in Politics on Trial: Five Famous Trials of the Twentieth Century. The editors of this volume introduce Kunstler’s account with a quote from Richard Nixon, who had been asked to account for his remarkable political success. “Fear” answered Nixon, “I use fear, and they don’t teach you that in Boy Scouts.”

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti  were, respectively, a shoe-maker and fish-monger, who were vocal about the oppression that the working class were experiencing as part of the “Red Scare” that engulfed the nation after World War I.

A proper consideration of the 1921 trials for robbery and first degree murder is to see them as part of a deliberate desire to punish “the usual suspects” – in this case, recent Italian immigrants and known members of the Galleani anarchist group that was creating turmoil in the State in a time of deep divisions and labour unrest in America. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti  were, respectively, a shoe-maker and fish-monger, who were vocal about the oppression that the working class were experiencing as part of the “Red Scare” that engulfed the nation after World War I. They had no criminal records when they were apprehended  after fleeing an auto repair shop that may have housed the second getaway car used in a robbery. The arresting officer found a .38 caliber revolver on Vanzetti along with some shotgun shells. Sacco had denied having a weapon but later at the station was found to have an automatic .32 Colt revolver in his belt together with cartridges.

While the case that unfolded thereafter remains to this very day something of a “murder mystery” – as Alan Dershowitz describes it – it continues to resonate as a watershed moment in American political and legal history. We cannot know with absolute certainty that the pair were innocent of the murder of two payroll guards.  But there can be no doubt that they were not given anything resembling a fair trial. Many of the key actors – police officers, Judge Thayer, the prosecutor, and at least certain of the jurors – were seriously prejudiced against the accused because of their status as recent immigrants and members of an anarchist circle. Many would say that, in the vindictive atmosphere of the era, Sacco and Vanzetti were doomed from the moment the trial commenced. What is more, despite evidence of grave irregularities and biased rulings on evidence by the judge, and notwithstanding the gathering and production of new and important evidence casting doubt on the prosecution’s most incriminating evidence, all appeals were denied and no new trial was ever ordered.

The trial transcript and various statements made outside of court make it readily apparent that Judge Thayer displayed a high degree of disdain and even contempt for the accused. At his club and elsewhere he spoke, for instance, of his fervent desire to “get those anarchist bastards.”

After the verdict, which many observers condemned as unjust and based on a faulty trial process, and a growing revulsion at the verdict from protesters around the world, Governor Fuller of Massachusetts appointed an independent commission to advise him on whether the trial was so unfair as to warrant some form of leniency. But the Chair, President Abbott Lowell of Harvard University, was widely seen as an anti-Italian bigot and was a known racist. He had, for instance, introduced racial and religious quotas at Harvard. The Commission’s Report did not carefully weigh new evidence or assess alleged misconduct in any depth and was viewed as a whitewash. Following its release, Governor Fuller swiftly declared that there was no reason to commute the death sentences.

As the date of execution grew closer, many supporters of the condemned men, including the Defence Committee consisting of a number of prominent writers and intellectuals, desperately sought a reprieve and a commutation of sentence. Two Supreme Court justices were approached by lawyers, who pleaded for a last minute stay. Ironically, one of the members of the body that represented the last lifeline for the men, Justice Brandeis, a very liberal jurist, declined to act due to a conflict of interest. His wife and a family friend were passionate members of the Defence Committee for the convicted men and had provided funds for legal fees.

An unintentionally piercing comment on the whole tawdry affair was expressed in the death certificates themselves, which read: “Cause of death: judicial homicide.”

Finally, on Aug 22, 1927, the barbaric act known as capital punishment was inflicted on the two hapless men. An unintentionally piercing comment on the whole tawdry affair was expressed in the death certificates themselves, which read: “Cause of death: judicial homicide.” Their case and the cause of greater rights for the working class continued to resound throughout the century. Upton Sinclair wrote a two-volume documentary novel, Boston, shortly after the executions. Maxwell Anderson wrote a highly regarded play, Winterset. An outstanding Italian film, Sacco E Vanzetti, was made in 1971 and went on to win an award at Cannes.

It is also most significant that the state Judicial Council, just four months after the men went to the electric chair, cited their case as strong evidence of “serious defects in our methods of administering justice.” Its proposals led to significant reform.

In 1977, Massachusetts’ Governor Michael Dukakis established a panel to review the case. After it reported to him, he issued an official proclamation declaring that the “atmosphere of their trial and appeal was permeated by prejudice and hostility towards unorthodox political views” and criticizing the conduct of many of the officials involved.

Also 1977, Katherine Anne Porter, one of America’s great modernist writers, penned the memoir, The Never-ending Wrong. It recounted the last, feverish days during which she and fellow writers and activists did what they could to protest the impending executions. Porter had served on the Defence Committee and got herself arrested for her troubles, being marched through the streets of Boston with fellow protesters to the Joy Street Police Station. After a last vigil and a sort of wake for the heroes of working class resistance, Porter recalled the horror she felt upon waking up to a world where such injustice was done:

For I woke when we struck the searing hot light of the August morning as if I had come out of a nightmare, horrified at my own thoughts and feeling as if I had got some incurable wound to my very humanity – as indeed I had.’    


Rob Normey
Rob Normey is a lawyer who has practised in Edmonton for many years and is a long-standing member of several human rights organizations.

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