Summation of the Defense, Sacco-Vanzetti Trial

On April 15, 1920, two men shot and killed paymaster Frederick Parmenter and his guard Alessandro Berardelli as they were transporting cash for their company’s payroll at the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Through circumstantial evidence, as well as eyewitness accounts of two Italian-looking men fleeing the murder scene, police came to suspect Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti of the crime.

Summary Overview

On April 15, 1920, two men shot and killed paymaster Frederick Parmenter and his guard Alessandro Berardelli as they were transporting cash for their company’s payroll at the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Through circumstantial evidence, as well as eyewitness accounts of two Italian-looking men fleeing the murder scene, police came to suspect Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti of the crime.

During a six-week trial, the prosecution called numerous witnesses who claimed to identify Sacco and Vanzetti as the gunmen. The prosecution pointed out inconsistencies in the defendants’ testimonies and produced bullets from the crime scene allegedly linked to Sacco’s gun. The defense questioned the credibility of these witnesses, argued that any false testimony by Sacco and Vanzetti reflected their fear of deportation and cast doubt on the alleged connection between the bullets and the defendants. Radical sympathizers around the world rallied around Sacco and Vanzetti, believing the police had targeted them because of their alleged connections to a violent group of Italian anarchists, but the jury was not convinced. The two men were found guilty and sentenced to death.

Defining Moment

On April 15, 1920, Frederick Parmenter and his guard Alessandro Berardelli were shot and killed while transporting cash to the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company for the factory’s payroll in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Local police arrested Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for their connection to the owner of a Buick automobile that allegedly fled the murder scene, as well as the failed holdup of another factory in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, on Christmas Eve 1919. Sacco was able to provide an alibi for the attempted robbery in Bridgewater by proving he had been working at the time of the Christmas Eve holdup, but several witnesses identified Vanzetti as being present at the crime scene, and he was sentenced to twelve to fifteen years in prison. Since neither man had an airtight alibi for the armed robbery in South Braintree, they were both indicted for the murders of Parmenter and Berardelli.

Around the same time, the US Department of Justice ordered police across the nation to locate and deport foreign nationals believed to support Communist or anarchist views in what would become known as the Palmer Raids. Sacco and Vanzetti had ties to a sect of violent Italian anarchists, who operated within the United States and abroad, and the two men had violated both the Selective Service Act of 1917 (by fleeing to Mexico to dodge the draft) and the Sedition Act of 1918 (by expressing anti-war sentiments during World War I). Friends and associates raised money to hire leftist California labor lawyer Fred H. Moore to defend Sacco and Vanzetti, believing the police had unfairly accused the two men of the murders because of their radicalism.

Judge Webster Thayer presided over the trial, which was held in Dedham, Massachusetts. The defendants’ testimony revealed that both men had lied about the age, price, and type of bullets in the guns they carried at the time of their arrest; some of the old, outdated bullets from the murder scene allegedly matched those found in Sacco’s pocket. Additionally, Vanzetti’s pistol was identical to the one carried by the murdered guard, whose gun had gone missing from the crime scene. To explain these inconsistencies, as well as Sacco’s false statement that he had been working on the day of the murders, both men cited their fear of deportation for their illegal activities and involvement with radical groups.

Following a six-week trial, the jury returned a guilty verdict. One juror explained that they found the witnesses to be mostly unreliable, but felt confident in their verdict because of the similarity between the bullets found at the crime scene and those found on Sacco’s person at the time of his arrest. However, the defense questioned the chain of possession of the bullets presented as evidence in the trial, expressed doubt that the prosecution could definitively prove that the bullets offered as evidence were really the ones found at the murder scene, and suggested that the ballistics experts who took apart the pistols for examination had reassembled them incorrectly. Furthermore, despite the age and rarity of the bullets, the prosecution could only circumstantially connect them to either Sacco’s or Vanzetti’s weapons.

The case became a rallying point for radicals, laborers, and Socialists around the world, who believed the defendants’ radicalism had prejudiced the judge and jury against them. Both the indictment and the verdict sparked an intense reaction, and anarchists retaliated violently with riots in several major cities and bombings at American embassies across the world.

Author Biography

Fred H. Moore was a criminal defense attorney from California, and he was widely known for his Socialist beliefs. He frequently defended laborers and political radicals, and he participated in several trials involving the Industrial Workers of the World.

Because of his experience, friends and associates of Sacco and Vanzetti raised money to hire Moore as a member of the defense team, even though Moore had never tried a case in Massachusetts before. During the trial, Judge Webster Thayer often denied Moore’s motions and lectured him on procedural matters specific to Massachusetts jurisprudence, leading some observers to suspect bias on the part of the judge. Moore filed five separate motions for a new trial based on the questionable credibility of some of the eyewitness testimony that had identified Sacco and Vanzetti as the gunmen. After Judge Thayer denied all motions for a new trial, Moore resigned from the case in October 1924.

Document Analysis

In his summation, defense attorney Fred Moore seeks to cast doubt on each witness’s identification of the defendants. He calls attention to contradictions in the testimonies of the prosecution’s witnesses. For example, the witness identified as Mr. Neal had claimed to have identified the getaway car because he observed its new paint job earlier in the day, even though vehicle fleeing the murder scene was reportedly covered in dust. Another witness for the prosecution, Mr. Faulkner, had claimed that he rode the train with defendant Vanzetti that morning, but despite riding the same train every day for years, he did not recognize a single other person on the train–not even the staff. Miss Mary Splaine had provided a description of Sacco with far more detail than one would expect given her vantage point from a second-story window into a car traveling at eighteen miles per hour.

Moore also demonstrates that, by contrast, numerous witnesses from better vantage points than those testifying for the prosecution were unable to positively identify the defendants as the men at the murder scene. Moore mentions Mr. Bostock, who passed by the crime scene at the time of the murder and testified to seeing two men in front of the building but would not positively identify Sacco and Vanzetti.

Moore explains to the jury that they may consider circumstantial evidence in deciding the fate of the defendants. However, because of the legal presumption of innocence and the requirement to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the jurors must accept any reasonable interpretation of the circumstantial evidence that points to the innocence of the defendants. In other words, in the absence of direct testimony to contradict any reasonable interpretation offered, the jury must vote not guilty.

When the police took the defendants into custody about three weeks after the murders, Sacco admitted that he was meeting Vanzetti that night so the two could visit a friend. He did not mention that they picked up a car from another friend, which happened to match the make and model of the getaway car. From this omission and several other inconsistencies, the police concluded that Sacco and Vanzetti committed the murders. However, Moore puts forth an alternative explanation for this circumstantial evidence of guilt: Sacco lied because he feared deportation, having connections to an Italian anarchist group. Moore also explains that Sacco had initially denied working for the Rice & Hutchins shoe factory because he had been employed there under a false name. Finally, Moore reminds the jury of the questionable origins of the bullets allegedly used by the murderers and offered as evidence by the prosecution. To conclude, Moore implores the jury to consider only the absolute facts of the case when reaching its verdict.

Essential Themes

The defense pursued two theories in its summation of the case. First, in order to reach a guilty verdict, Moore emphasized how the jury must be convinced “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Sacco and Vanzetti committed the crime. Therefore, Moore sought to cast doubt on the prosecution witnesses’ identification of Sacco and Vanzetti as the murderers. He emphasized the contradictory testimony given by some of the witnesses and the poor vantage points of others. Moore raised serious questions concerning the validity of the testimony of the prosecution’s witnesses. He noted that several defense witnesses testified that they could not identify Sacco as the man at the murder scene, and Moore made a point of reminding the jury that many of these men were of “English stock and Anglo-Saxon stock” to appeal to the prejudices the jurors might have held against Italian witnesses. He implored the jury to consider the witness’s credibility when deciding whether to accept their identification of the defendants as the murderers. This approach proved somewhat helpful, as one of the jurors later explained they had not given much weight to the witnesses’ testimonies.

For his second theory, Moore addressed the circumstantial evidence presented at the trial. Police interpreted Sacco and Vanzetti’s failure to disclose their access to a car of the same make and model as the getaway car as a sign of guilt in the murder case. Moore had a plausible alternative explanation for Sacco’s fear of police investigation, but revealing it risked biasing the jury against the defendants: Both Sacco and Vanzetti had spent time in Mexico to avoid being drafted into the military during World War I, in violation of the Selective Service Act. Additionally, the pair’s ownership and dissemination of foreign language books containing radical political ideas violated the Sedition Act, which carried a penalty of deportation. Moore had the unenviable task of using these facts to explain why Sacco and Vanzetti’s seemingly evasive behavior during police interrogations did not necessarily implicate them in the murders, without inciting any further bias from the jury. Unfortunately, Moore’s summation of the defense was not effective in the end: Sacco and Vanzetti were both found guilty and sentenced to death by electrocution. After a lengthy appeals process, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on August 23, 1927.

Bibliography and Additional Reading

  • Frankfurter, Felix. “The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media, 1 Mar. 1927. Web. 27 May 2014.
  • Rogers, Alan. “Sacco and Vanzetti.”Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2008. 169–207. Print.
  • Topp, Michael M.The Sacco and Vanzetti Case: A Brief History with Documents. New York: St. Martin, 2005. Print.
  • Watson, Bruce.Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind. New York: Viking, 2007. Print.