Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrants who served as scapegoats for an armed robbery, which occurred at the Slater and Morill Shoe Company in the Spring of 1920. On April 15th of that year, over the course of the aforementioned robbery, two men were shot dead. They were ambushed while transporting money between factories. The first victim was Alessandro Berardelli, a security guard who died in the attack, and who reached for his .38 caliber revolver before being shot 4 times. The second victim was Frederick Parmenter, who died after being shot twice as he tried to escape. A stolen Buick was used as a getaway car by the perpetrators, who shot at other workers during their escape. The killers used a .32 caliber pistol, the “Savage Model 1907”.
Sacco and Vanzetti were originally identified as suspects after their close personal association with the likely culprits, who had now escaped to Italy, brought them to the attention of the police. Both were adherents to a sect of anarchism that preached emancipation from the state by any means, including violence. Even before the Cold War, political dissidents were viewed with keen suspicion. The two men were tracked down, arrested, and searched. Sacco had his Italian passport, dissident propaganda, and a .32 caliber pistol with bullets that were of the same type as those used during the crime. Vanzetti had shotgun shells and a .38 caliber revolver, matching Alessandro Berardelli’s missing weapon. Both men lacked immediate alibis for the day of the crime. They were both charged with the aforementioned murder-robbery, and Vanzetti with a previous crime in Bridgewater which was believed to be connected.
The Bridgewater crime was tried first, and was presided over by Webster Thayer– a man with disdain for foreigners and radicals alike. Early on in the trial, which began June 22nd 1920, the prosecution presented a multitude of eyewitnesses who put Vanzetti at the scene based on his facial hair. The defense “fired back” with a flurry of witnesses– 16 in all– testifying that they had bought eels from Vanzetti throughout the day of the Bridgewater crime, in accordance with Italian tradition. Unfortunately, these witnesses were easy to disorient under cross-examination because of their poor or non-existent English proficiency. There was some controversy over whether Vanzetti should take the stand to defend himself, but nothing became of it; retrospective legal analysis indicates it may have aided his defense if were able to outperform the other defense witnesses. Vanzetti later claimed that his defense attorney, John Vahey, had conspired against him with the judge because of their mutual bias against political dissidents. In August of 1920, Vanzetti was given the maximum sentence, 15 years, for attempted robbery in the Bridgewater crime.
For the Braintree crimes– the murder robbery mentioned at the beginning of the article– Sacco and Vanzetti stood trial together. The trial began in May, 1921 and was presided over by the same judge who oversaw Vanzetti’s aforementioned attempted robbery conviction. The state presented strong circumstantial evidence against Sacco and Vanzetti; Sacco was absent from work, Sacco’s gun was of the same caliber as that used in the murder, and both men were adherents to a strain of violent anarchism. The prosecution presented witnesses indicating both men in the crime; again, the defense team responded with a series of their own witnesses, including Sacco and Vanzetti. Sacco was in Boston applying for a passport at the time of the crime and had lunch there. Several witnesses, including a clerk at the Italian consulate, corroborated his story, although the prosecution alleged that those providing his lunch-alibi were fellow anarchists. During the trial, much was made of the similarities between the murder weapon and the weapon collected from the two men. At the time of the trial, forensic analysis was fairly unsophisticated and as a result they were unable to identify even the weapon model during the trial, much less the exact weapon. It was later discovered that Sacco’s weapon was not the primary weapon used in the crime, and it is thought that the bullets matching his weapon were planted by the prosecution after the fact. Despite this, the defense was able to rebut claims that Sacco’s weapon was so unique as to be identifiable with certainty, since 300,000 guns in circulation would have matched its forensic profile at the time.
Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty of the Braintree crime after 3 hours of deliberation on July 21st, 1921. Even at the time, many believed that they had been convicted on the basis of their anarchism, despite claims to the contrary by the jury. Both men were sentenced to death in the electric chair, since first-degree murder was a capital crime. After several appeals, a credible confession given by another man, and the protests of their supports, Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death. Both men refused to see a priest prior to execution, in accordance with their atheistic beliefs. Sacco’s last words were, “Farewell, mother”. Vanzetti’s last words were, “I wish to forgive some people for what they are now doing to me”. They died at midnight on August 22nd, 1927.