Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sacco and Vanzetti: The Breakdown of the Legal System

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Sacco and Vanzetti The Breakdown of the Legal System

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were viewed by the American public as anarchists and radicalists. When these men were on trial for murder, the people involved in the case viewed them this way as well. Sacco and Vanzetti were fighting for their lives against people like Webster Thayer, the presiding judge of the case, and Fredrick Katzmann, the prosecutor who saw these men as the American public did. Because everyone, even people involved in the case, only paid attention to their political views and not evidence, Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted not because they were guilty of murder, but because they were guilty of having radical views.

If the jury had looked only at the evidence, neither Sacco nor Vanzetti would have been convicted (Montgomery ). On April 1, 10, Sacco and Vanzetti were with a man named Ferruchio Coacci, who had a warrant out for his arrest and deportation. Because Sacco and Vanzetti were with him on the day he was detained, they were arrested as well. On that fateful day, Sacco had a .-caliber gun on his person, and Vanzetti had four shotgun shells. A few weeks before they were arrested, there was a double homicide in which one victim was killed by a .-caliber bullet and the other by a shotgun. Because of this fact, the police became suspicious and began interrogations (Montgomery 7).

The interrogations Sacco and Vanzetti were put through were very grueling, and both men, because of their poor knowledge of English, were often confused about what they were being asked. With no lawyer present, the police easily made the men appear guilty. Due to these interrogations, the case went to trial (Montgomery ), during which the defense showed that the gun found on Sacco and the shells found on Vanzetti were not those used in the murders, and that each man had an alibi (Montgomery 11-4). “[The prosecutor’s] case was based primarily on consciousness of guilt”(Davidson/Lytle 4). Again, because of their poor command of the English language, both men were often made to look like fools while on the stand (Montgomery 18). Most historians generally agree this is the reason for Sacco and Venzetti’s conviction.

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At the trial at Dedham, the presiding judge was a man by the name of Webster Thayer. For the most part, it was thought that Judge Thayer conducted a “perfectly fair trial; even Vanzetti…did not object to it”(Kaiser/Young 6). Thayer’s true feelings about both the men and the case become apparent when looking at his decisions in hindsight. Judge Thayer’s case records for the few years before this case show a predisposition towards leniency; within two years of this case, Thayer sentenced a man convicted of intent to murder to three years in prison, a man convicted of assault with a dangerous weapon to six months in prison, and a man convicted of armed robbery to six to eight years in prison. After these cases but before the Dedham trial, Vanzetti was convicted of assault with intent to rob. Nobody was hurt and nothing was stolen, yet “Thayer sentenced [him] to twelve to fifteen years in Charleston State Prison” (Kaiser/Young 7).

It was after Thayer sentenced Vanzetti to this unusually long punishment that he pulled strings in order to be the presiding judge over the South Braintree murder case trying defendants Nicola Sacco and the recently convicted Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Thayer already had an abhorrence for Vanzetti when he “asked his old college friend, Chief Justice Aiken, for the assignment, even though he had presided over Vanzetti’s earlier trial and could consider himself impartial”(). Throughout the trial, Judge Thayer’s views were becoming increasingly evident.

In the discussion of the ballistics testimony, [Thayer] wrongly assumed that Katzmann’s expert witnesses had unequivocally identified Sacco’s gun as firing the fatal shot. And he spent no time wieghing the defense’s argument that the prosecution eyewitnesses had been unreliable…He lingered over evidence offered by the police…while ignoring Sacco and Vanzetti’s explanations (Davidson/Lytle 5).

“By the end of the trial, Thayer made his sympathies all too clear”(Davidson/Lytle 5). In a criminal court, the charges a judge makes to a jury should aid and help guide them as they deliberate and interpret conflicting evidence in order to reach a logical conclusion(Davidson/Lytle 5). In his charge to the jury, Thayer told them to “do as your fellow man did overseas and fight for your country”(Montgomery ). By allowing his prejudices to get in the way of his decisions, Judge Thayer completed this triangle of misconduct.

Fredrick G. Katzmann was the district attorney assigned to the indictment of Sacco and Vanzetti and “showed unusual zeal in constructing a case against them.” As a prosecutor, Katzmann had to prove to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the evidence of the case held Sacco and Vanzetti accountable for the murders in South Braintree. Time and time again, when the evidence was not in his favor Katzmann found other ways to damage the suspects’ case, starting with the interrogations (Montgomery 1-1). To begin with, at no point during the first two days of questioning did he tell either suspect why they had been arrested”(Davidson/Lytle ). Also, the interrogations consisted mostly of questions about their political beliefs and their involvement in different anarchist activites in the past as opposed to questions about the murders. Although he did, at one point, ask as to their whereabouts on April 15th, Katzmann never actually mentioned the South Braintree murders(Davidson/Lytle 0). Also, when he asked witnesses to identify the suspects, he arranged for Sacco and Vanzetti to pose as bandits alone in the middle of a room instead of in a standard lineup.

At the trial, Katzmann focused only on the evidence that damaged the defendants’ case. Because the defense was able to refute the hard evidence of the ballistics testimony and the eyewitness identifications, he had to center his case around consciousness of guilt. “Here, Katzmann made his case with telling effect”(Davidson/Lytle 4). Because of their anarchist views, Sacco and Vanzetti did not prove very kind to police; therefore, during the first few interrogations both men often lied. When they were asked why they were carrying pistols, they replied that they went hunting in the morning. If this were true, then why were they still carrying their weapons at night with extra ammunition? Katzmann brought to the case other occasions, including one that severely damaged Sacco and Vanzetti’s chances for acquittal. In addition to proving consciousness of guilt, Katzmann was able to indirectly damage the defendants’ character.

“In order to explain such evasive behavior, defense lawyers were forced to introduce the inflammatory issue of Sacco and Vanzetti’s political beliefs” (Davidson/Lytle 4). The defense argued that because both men proudly declared themselves to be anarchists and had been active in strikes and labor unrest of the era, they were alarmed when they were arrested. In order to argue this, the defense had to prove they were in fact involved in these activities.

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