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The Sacco and Vanzetti Cases | The Nation

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The Sacco and Vanzetti Cases

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Sacco and Vanzetti are being tried for highway robbery and murder, but the real charge is radicalism.

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The trial before the court in Dedham, Massachusetts, for a capital offense of two Italians, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, raises issues of fundamental importance. The accused are men of excellent character and of unusual gifts. Sacco is a skilled shoe-worker who has been employed in one establishment seven years, earning sometimes as much as $26 in a single day. Vanzetti left industrial employment and bought a fish route in the Italian section of Plymouth for "love of independence." Both are radicals and have taken an aggressive part in the industrial struggle; in other words, they belong to the unpopular class of "reds."

The crimes for which Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested were an unsuccessful attempt to capture a pay roll at Bridgewater on December 24, 1919, and a hold-up at Braintree on April 15, 1920, in which the bandits got away with some $18,000 and the paymaster and one of the guards were killed. Both Sacco and Vanzetti were examined for both of these crimes, but only Vanzetti was put on trial for the first, that of Bridgewater His trial took place last July, when he was found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years in the State's prison. It is for the second of the crimes, that of highway robbery and murder at Braintree, that both he and Sacco are now facing trial at Dedham.

The circumstances attending the arrest of the two men and still more developments at Vanzetti's trial have aroused a widespread belief in a frame-up. Substantial basis for this belief is furnished by the transcript of the preliminary hearings and of Vanzetti's trial. In these documents not a scintilla of evidence is produced showing why either Sacco or Vanzetti should have been charged with the Braintree crime (if further evidence exists, the accused were given no chance to meet it), while the only evidence which afforded ground for more than a surmise connecting Vanzetti with the Bridgewater crime was that of persons who had witnessed the holdup and who claimed to recognize one of the men who had done the shooting—a man, be it remembered, they had never seen before and of whom they got but a momentary glance upon an occasion of intense excitement. An interval of four months had elapsed between this occasion and the first attempt at identification; and between two or three months elapsed before the attempted identification at the trial. All but two of the witnesses, while they were fairly positive in their identification, admitted that there was room for doubt. "I think he is the man," "I feel so but I may be mistaken."

Two witnesses, to be sure, were positive in their identification. One of these, about fifteen minutes before the hold-up occurred, had noticed a covered motor with the windshield up some distance up the street, and she claimed to have particularly observed the man at the wheel who she was sure was Vanzetti. But this witness was equally sure that she had seen the shooting, had seen the fire from the gun. And this she certainly did not see, as cross examination developed the fact that a two-story building obstructed the line of vision between the scene of action and her point of observation from a window in the railroad station. Another witness, a schoolboy, who was equally positive that the man who fired the gun was the man before him in the dock admitted that he got but a "fleeting glance," and the only description he could give of him was that "by the way he ran I could tell he was a foreigner." Not one witness who described the gunman mentioned the unusually big mustache which is the striking feature of Vanzetti's physiognomy. The mustache of the bandit is variously described as "short," "croppy," "trimmed," "neither big nor small," "not a Charlie Chaplin mustache," "a mustache that had been cropped off at the end not long and flowing." As I looked at Vanzetti in prison I could discern not one single point in his appearance which had been suggested by any one of the identifications.

To meet testimony which it is difficult to regard as serious the defense produced a long line of witnesses who swore that Vanzetti had been on his accustomed fish route at Plymouth from early morning till the afternoon of the day of the hold-up in a city twenty-eight miles distant. The landlady who had aroused him at six o'clock when a neighbor called with an order for fish, the man who keeps a shop near by, the boy who helped peddle fish from the cart and thereby earned his Christmas money, nine different housewives who had bought their day-before-Christmas dinner from Vanzetti all offered testimony which had in it no element of discrepancy. Such was the more important evidence both for the prosecution and for the defense, as recorded in the official transcript of Vanzetti's trial.

When in the face of this evidence the jury brought in a verdict of guilty, one had a confused sense of non sequitur, such as one feels when a prestidigitator produces a rabbit out of a hat. That "twelve good men and true" should have brought in so amazing a verdict and that it should be followed by a sentence of fifteen years in State's prison is almost incredible. Other factors must have been present, it will be argued, which are not here set down. And to some degree this is true. For however intangible and discrepant the evidence presented by the prosecution was in most respects, upon one point there was agreement: The man who committed the crime was "some kind of a foreigner," he was "dark-complexioned," he was "swarthy like an Italian," "he was a foreigner of some kind," he could even be recognized as a foreigner by "the way he ran." And similarly, there was the fact that "foreigners" were the only witnesses produced in behalf of the accused.

These things happened in the early months of 1920 when the anti-alien hysteria which had been gathering head since the war was at its climax. Aliens were presumably "reds" and "reds" were outside the pale of the law. Witnesses and court officials and jurymen of Cape Cod were perhaps not immune from this mob psychology. Is this suggestion resented? In the days of the witchcraft delusion did not the godly folk of New England see a witch in every old woman, and believe with the most perfect conviction that they beheld them riding on broomsticks across the sky?

Meanwhile the trial is under way and there is no appreciable defense find without which two men, "presumably innocent" under our law, have scant chance to obtain justice. In every Italian settlement the country over the appeal went forth to save their brethren in this hour of peril, with an amazingly generous response. But that was earlier in the defense fund campaign and these funds have been consumed. Now from every section comes the cry of unemployment and of monthly pledges that cannot be redeemed. Quite apart from the possibility of a frame-up in the present case, the neglect of our judicial system to provide adequate funds for the defense of the accused is nothing less than a scandal. For innocence can be established only by evidence. And to unearth evidence, to sift every fact, and to run down every clue is a prolonged, a painstaking, and hence an expensive undertaking in no way covered by the trifling fee to counsel which is all the State allows to secure defense for the accused. The handicap of the defense seems particularly flagrant in the light of the fact that the prosecution has at its service the whole police force of the country as well as a swarm of private detectives, let alone almost unlimited funds.

The failure of our judicial system to defend the property and the lives of the poor when they are caught in the meshes of the industrial struggle is a most ominous sign of the times. It is now generally known that Mooney and Billings were the victims of a frame-up in California. An outrage like this sinks into the hearts of the workers until "law and order," so called, tend to become regarded as instruments designed for their oppression.

William James, with sure instinct, put his finger years ago upon the infected spot which today is poisoning the life of the nation. In a letter to H. G. Wells in 1906, referring to some outrage upon human rights, he wrote:

Exactly that callousness to abstract justice is the sinister feature, and to me as to you the incomprehensible feature of our US. civilization .... When the ordinary American hears of these [cases], instead of the idealist within him beginning to "see red" with the higher indignation, instead of English history growing alive in his breast, he begins to pooh-pooh and minimize and tone down the thing and breed excuses from his general hind of optimism and respect for experience. "It's probably right enough." Scoundrelly, as you say, but understandable, from the point of view of the parties interested. But understandable in onlooking citizens only as a symptom of the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess success. That with the squalid cash interpretation put on the words success is our national disease. Hit it hard!

Liberty has been won, wherever it has been won at all, at a great price. Eternal vigilance is a part of that price, so the founders of the Republic taught. We citizens of the United States have entered into a most precious heritage which it is up to us to preserve for the benefit of all the people of the earth.

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