Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested following a 1920 payroll robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts, where two men died. They were arrested, they were tried together, they were convicted, and seven years later, they were executed. Whether they were guilty has always been a question. It is hard to read Susan Tejada’s heavily researched new book, “In Search of Sacco & Vanzetti”, without concluding that both Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent of the crimes for which they died, and that everyone involved in the trial knew, or should have known, that they were not guilty.
But some mysterious force took over. The crimes needed to be solved. Doubts needed to be ignored. Bias and prejudice were allowed to control decision making. The normal checks, balances, and brakes were either not present, or failed completely.
Tejada’s book is strong on a number of points. Perhaps most interesting to me, she places the crime, and the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti, in historical context. America in the years following World War I was, in many respects, out of sorts. There had been a vast amount of immigration, including immigration of hundreds of thousands of Italians, still trying to figure out what their place in this country would be. There was tremendous labor unrest, strikes cropping up all over, labor unions growing and, in some instances, becoming radicalized. At the same time, organized crime was developing, and political movements, such as the anarchist movement in which Italians tended to play a dominant role, grew. Large scale robberies, such as the Braintee robbery, were not uncommon, and became a favored way for radical groups to fund an array of illegal, and sometimes terrorist, activities.
Sacco and Vanzetti were recent immigrants, but not typical of Italians coming to the United States. Although they came from different parts of Italy and for different reasons, they were both very young, and from middle class backgrounds, although they arrived here without resources. They were ambitious, uneducated but curious and educatable, and they quickly learned that success in America was not going to come easily. They each became involved in radical circles (and in those circles met each other), and became interested in political and philosophical questions, and in spreading the theories of anarchism, sort of a forerunner to today’s Libertarianism, but with a more radical twist. Governments were not to be trusted (that was the negative) and people left to their own devices, with maximum freedom, would make the best decisions for themselves (that was the positive).
The details of their arrests are well described in the book. Whether the arrests would meet today’s probable cause determinations is unclear. All evidence was, at best, circumstantial, with contradictory evidence ignored. But once arrested,what appears to be inevitability set in. Lawyers who represented presumably radical groups, like the International Workers of the World, were engaged to represent the defendants. The case was put in front of the most establishment of establishment judges, whose bias was clear from the start.
Tejada pays much attention to the evidence put forth at the trial – a very long trial, with witness after witness appearing. Testimony was nothing if not contradictory. Reading the description of the testimony, and even reading the arguments of the various lawyers, it is hard to believe that guilty verdicts were rendered. But they were, and every attempt at an appeal or a rehearing (always to the same judge) was thwarted.
The extent to which this case captured the attention of the world is also described in detail. The involvement, not only of literary figures and members of the art world, but eminent legal minds, such as Brandeis and Frankfurter, are emphasized. But nothing helped the two condemned men, and on August 23, 1927, they both died.
The history is interesting. The results are tragic. But a question remains: could this happen again? Or, better, does this happen all the time? How sure are we that those who are sentenced to death are guilty for the crimes for which they have been convicted? Reading books like this, how can one maintain that the death penalty is an appropriate remedy in what is, at least in theory, a country dedicated to justice?