Commonwealth v. Sacco and Vanzetti (Massachusetts, 1921)

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On August 23, 1927, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts electrocuted two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, for the crimes of armed robbery and murder. The executions stirred angry protest in the United States and throughout the world by millions of people who believed that the two men had been denied a fair trial because of their ethnic background and political opinions.

Sacco and Vanzetti, aliens and anarchists who had fled to Mexico to avoid the draft during world war i, were arrested in 1920 and quickly brought to trial in Dedham, Massachusetts, for the murder of a paymaster and a guard during the robbery of a shoe factory. The trial took place at the end of the postwar Red Scare in a political atmosphere charged with hysteria against foreigners and radicals. Although the ballistics evidence was inconclusive and many witnesses, most of them Italian, placed the two men elsewhere at the time of the robbery, the jury returned guilty verdicts after listening to patriotic harangues from the chief prosecutor, Frederick Katzmann, and the trial judge, Webster Bradley Thayer.

During his cross-examination of the two defendants, Katzmann constantly emphasized their unorthodox political views and their flight to Mexico during the war. Thayer tolerated a broad range of political questions, mocked the two men's anarchism, and urged the members of the jury to act as "true soldiers … in the spirit of supreme American loyalty."

A diverse coalition of Bay State aristocrats, law professors such as felix frankfurter, Italian radicals, and New York intellectuals attempted to secure a new trial for the condemned men during the next seven years. They marshaled an impressive amount of evidence pointing to Thayer's prejudice, the doubts of key prosecution witnesses, and the possibility that the crime had been committed by a gang of professional outlaws. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, however, relying on principles of trial court discretion that made it virtually impossible to challenge any of Thayer's rulings, spurned these appeals and refused to disturb either the verdict or the death sentences. A similar conclusion was reached by a special commission appointed by Governor Alvan T. Fuller and headed by Harvard University president A. Lawrence Lowell.

Last-minute efforts to secure a stay of execution from federal judges, including Supreme Court Justices oliver wendell holmes and louis d. brandeis, also proved unavailing. Attorneys for Sacco and Vanzetti argued that because of Thayer's hostility their clients had been denied a fair trial guaranteed by the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment. But with the exception of moore v. dempsey (1923), where a state murder trial had been intimidated by a mob, the Supreme Court had shown great reluctance to intervene in local criminal proceedings. "I cannot think that prejudice on the part of a presiding judge however strong would deprive the Court of jurisdiction," wrote Holmes, "and in my opinion nothing short of a want of legal power to decide the case authorizes me to interfere.…" Whether Sacco and Vanzetti received a fair trial is questionable; however, Francis Russell has shown how illusory is the old contention that they were wholly innocent.

Michael E. Parrish


Joughn, G. Louis and Morgan, Edmund M. 1948 The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Russell, Francis 1962 Tragedy in Dedham: The Story of the Sacco-Vanzetti Case. New York: Harper & Row.

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Commonwealth v. Sacco and Vanzetti (Massachusetts, 1921)

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