Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were two Italian immigrants who were executed for two murders committed during an armored car robbery that took place in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1920. It is the consensus today that Sacco & Vanzetti were convicted only because of their ethnicity and political beliefs, and not the facts of the case.

The Crime

On the afternoon of April 15, 1920 two guards working for Slater and Morrill Shoe Factories were moving $16,000 in payroll envelopes from one building to a second, some 200 yards off. As they were walking they passed two men with dark clothes and caps who were leaning against the fence. Suddenly the two men grabbed and shot both of the guards. A seven-seater Buick pulled up. The two gunmen grabbed the payroll boxes and leaped into the car, as did a third man who had been hiding behind a pile of bricks. Two other men were already in the car, making a total of five bandits. The car sped out of town with a shotgun poking out through the rear window, and an occupant of the car throwing out strips of rubber with nails in them to puncture the tires of any cars in pursuit.

The local police force began investigating a gang of local Italian men who were suspected of taking part in several other holdups. One of these men, Mike Boda, owned a Buick. While being investigated, Boda took his car in for repairs and when he came to pick it up, the garage refused to give it to him and called the police. On his visit to the garage Boda was accompanied by three men: Riccardo Orciani, Nicola Sacco, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The police arrested the four men as they fled the garage. Vanzetti was carrying a loaded .38 revolver and a number of loose shotgun shells. At the police station, Sacco was found to have a .32 Colt automatic, fully loaded, and a pocketful of ammunition. Boda and Orciani quickly moved back to Italy.

Both men gave untrue accounts of where they had been or how they had obtained their guns. They denied knowing Boda and Orciani. They were vague in their responses to questions about their political beliefs. When the U.S. joined WWI, they both fled to Mexico in order to escape being drafted. In all probability, Sacco and Vanzetti thought that their arrests were connected to their anarchism or their draft dodging, since murder or armed robbery were not mentioned by the police. Vanzetti was eventually indicted for both the Braintree robbery and an earlier one, Sacco was only charged with the Braintree robbery and murder.

During this time the United States was in the midst of a Red Scare, there was mass hysteria that the country was going to be taken over by communists, socialists, and anarchists. The Attorney General's office began a program of thousands of arrests and hundreds of deportations beginning in 1918. The typical view of an anarchist was a bomb-throwing Italian who agitated for the destruction of all government - legislatures, "bosses," courts, and imposed laws. They argued for a kind of self-government of small, libertarian social units. Sacco and Vanzetti were very vocal in the anarchist community, taking part in several labor strikes. Vanzetti was also a speaker at anarchist rallies, and a notice announcing one of his speeches was found on Sacco when the two were arrested.

The Trial

Their trial started on May 31, 1921. The prosecution first produced eyewitnesses that placed Sacco in the area of the killings. Four identified Vanzetti, seven recognized Sacco. Of these eleven witnesses, only one testified that he had seen the shooting, although prior to the trial he had told the defense that he had ducked under the table when the shooting began and had seen nothing. They then produced forensic evidence regarding the bullets used in the robbery. One expert for the prosecution said that the bullet that killed one of the guards was consistent with being fired by the pistol found on Sacco. Finally the prosecution brought up the "consciousness of guilt," that is, Sacco and Vanzetti behaved like guilty men. First, there was their need for the car, and their "flight" when they found they could not get it. The defense argued that the car was needed to dispose of incriminating material - anarchist literature, the guns - in the light of Sacco and Vanzetti's fear that they would be framed if they were found with anarchist materials. Second, they were armed when arrested; third, their weapons and ammunition were consistent with the shootings of the two guards. Fourth, they gave false accounts when arrested about who they had been visiting and the source of their guns.

In order to explain all of these issues, the defense found it necessary to introduce the anarchistic beliefs of the defendants, so that their fears could justify their possession of firearms - Sacco was at times a night watchman for his shoe company, Vanzetti carried comparatively large sums of cash in his fish-peddling business - and their need to dispose of radical literature. Since the defense brought up their political beliefs, it allowed the prosecution to use it against them.

In a savage cross-examination of Sacco, the prosecution played on the patriotism of the jury by questioning Sacco's flight to Mexico, his refusal to accept the draft, and his "love of country." Sacco's attempt to explain himself, in broken English, allowed the district attorney to seize on innocent statements and force "yes-or-no" answers from Sacco, who viewed the questions as unanswerable.

The defense built up the alibis of both men. Sacco had been in Boston, seeking a passport to return to Italy. This was supported by several witnesses, including a member of the Italian consulate. The prosecution argued that the events had happened so long ago that it was impossible to remember the actual date. They used the same device when witnesses testified that Vanzetti had been selling fish and talking with friends

The Verdict and Execution

On July 14, 1921, after half a day's deliberation, the jury found both Sacco and Vanzetti guilty. Their case dragged through the appeals process for over six years. During this time a man in prison named Celestino F. Medeiros confessed to taking part in the Braintree robbery and declared that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent. It was obvious through his testimony that Medeiros had been at the robbery, and that when he was arrested he was carrying $3,200 in cash, one-fifth of $16,000. (The prosecution was never able to explain what Sacco and Vanzetti might have done with the money). His statements were rejected as being unreliable.

Both men were executed on August 23, 1927. Vanzetti used his final words to declare his innocence one last time. Sacco declared "Long live anarchy! Farewell my wife and child and all my friends."

Ballistics tests done in the 1960s conclusively proved that Sacco's gun was used to murder one of the guards.

Stuff I remember from high school history class