Summation of the Prosecution, Sacco-Vanzetti Trial

On April 15, 1920, Frederick Parmenter and his guard Alessandro Berardelli were shot and killed by two men as they transported cash for their company’s payroll in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Police indicted Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for the murders based on circumstantial evidence and suspicious activity.

Summary Overview

On April 15, 1920, Frederick Parmenter and his guard Alessandro Berardelli were shot and killed by two men as they transported cash for their company’s payroll in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Police indicted Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for the murders based on circumstantial evidence and suspicious activity.

During the course of six weeks, both sides called nearly one hundred witnesses, who presented dozens of different versions of the facts. The prosecution pointed out falsehoods in Sacco and Vanzetti’s testimonies and analyzed the ballistics evidence to prove the fatal bullet found at the scene came from Sacco’s gun. The defense questioned the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses, argued that the defendant’s suspicious behavior reflected their guilt and anxiety over illegal activity unrelated to the murders, and cast doubt on the connection between the bullets and the defendants. Radicals around the world supported Sacco and Vanzetti, believing police targeted them because of their connections to a violent group of Italian anarchists. Nonetheless, the jury convicted the two men, who were ultimately sentenced to death.

Defining Moment

On April 15, 1920, Parmenter and his guard Berardelli were shot and killed by two men while transporting payroll cash to the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company in South Braintree, Massachusetts. A few weeks later, police arrested Sacco and Vanzetti when they came to a garage to pick up the alleged getaway car, a 1920 Buick. The two men were also charged with a failed holdup in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, on Christmas Eve. Sacco was cleared of the Christmas Eve holdup, but Vanzetti was sentenced to twelve to fifteen years after being identified by several witnesses. Both men were indicted for the Braintree murders.

Sacco and Vanzetti were tried by Judge Webster Thayer in Dedham, Massachusetts, in June and July 1921. At trial, their testimony contradicted earlier answers given to police regarding the age, price, and type of bullets in the guns they carried at the time of their arrest. Additionally, Sacco initially told police that he was at work on April 15, but this turned out to be false. Police interpreted the inconsistencies as a sign of guilt; the defendants explained the suspicious behavior as fear of deportation for their radical political activities.

Both Sacco and Vanzetti had ties to a violent Italian anarchist group and distributed Socialist and Communist literature in violation of the Sedition Act. Both men had also violated the Selective Service Act by fleeing to Mexico to dodge the World War I draft. Around the time of the arrests, local police were working with the US Departments of Labor and Justice to locate and deport foreign nationals who violated these laws. Friends and associates of Sacco and Vanzetti raised money to hire radical California labor lawyer Fred H. Moore to defend the two men; many believed the police had unfairly targeted the pair as suspects because of their nationality and anarchist connections.

The jury returned a ten to two guilty verdict: both Sacco and Vanzetti were to receive the death penalty. One juror explained that the dozens of conflicting witnesses did little to help either side’s case; instead, the jury relied on the ballistics evidence to decide that Sacco had fired the murder weapon. However, the defense questioned the chain of possession of the bullets presented as evidence in the trial; suggested that the “experts” who disassembled the pistols for examination had reassembled them incorrectly, thus interfering with the results of the ballistics tests; and asserted that the prosecution could only circumstantially connect the bullets found at the scene with either defendant’s weapon.

Sacco and Vanzetti’s indictment, trial, and execution garnered international attention and became a rallying point for supporters of radical, labor, and Socialist movements. Their Italian anarchist associates arranged bombings locally and at foreign American embassies, and protesters rioted across the globe.

Author Biography

Frederick G. Katzmann was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard College in 1896 and Boston University Law School in 1902. Following his admission to the bar, Katzmann joined the staff of the Norfolk-Plymouth County district attorney’s office. He was elected district attorney in 1916 and held this position at the time of Sacco and Vanzetti’s arrest, indictment, and trial.

Katzmann is credited with connecting Sacco and Vanzetti to the Braintree murders, but he was criticized for mishandling important evidence and playing to the judge and jury’s prejudice against foreign citizens and political radicals. Extensive research conducted by legal scholars following the trial even suggests that Katzmann may have manipulated the testimony of key witnesses, particularly with respect to the ballistics analysis, and thus significantly–and unfairly–influenced the outcome of the trial.

Document Analysis

Katzmann begins by congratulating the jury on their service and flattering their intelligence. He “corrects” the defense’s statement that any juror in the minority should not change his vote because of peer pressure and instead says the juror must consider carefully why he is the only one to disagree. Katzmann defines “reasonable doubt” as a situation where a juror cannot determine the truth even after trying “conscientiously and courageously.”

Next, he identifies and discredits the defense’s three arguments: the prosecution’s witnesses incorrectly identified the defendants, the defendants were not in South Braintree on the day of the murders, and the inconsistencies in the defendants’ testimonies were the result of their anarchist connections rather than their role in the murders.

For the first argument, Katzmann says the defense’s primary witnesses–about ten nearby construction workers–all gave conflicting testimony regarding the crime scene. He reminds the jury that two witnesses who lived in nearby houses testified that those workers could not have seen anything because they fled as soon as they heard gunshots. To address the second argument, Katzmann lists several witnesses who testified to Sacco and Vanzetti’s whereabouts on April 15, but questions the validity of their recollections of the events of that specific date.

With regard to the third argument, Katzmann notes that neither the prosecution nor the defense intended to mention Sacco and Vanzetti’s radical political activities at the trial. The defendants were forced to address the issue when it became necessary to explain the inconsistencies in their testimony: the police inferred their guilt based on suspicious activity, so the defendants explained that they lied about their whereabouts to conceal their movement of radical literature. But Katzmann argues that the facts do not line up with the defendants’ explanation.

Finally, Katzmann summarizes the prosecution’s case. He notes that the basic facts surrounding the murder are not disputed, and the real question is who actually did the shooting. He admits that some of the prosecution’s witnesses are unreliable and offers explanations as to the inconsistencies in others’ testimonies. He then summarizes the testimony of several witnesses who claimed to have positively identified Sacco and Vanzetti at the murder scene.

Katzmann also addresses the ballistics evidence. He focuses on the bullet that killed Berardelli and was retrieved from his body. The defense’s expert ballistics witness, James Burns, argued that it was not fired from the type of gun Sacco had in his possession, while the prosecution’s expert witness, Captain Charles Van Amburgh, claimed that the grooves on the bullet match up with the rust pits inside Sacco’s gun.

In the end, the prosecution implores the jury to make their decision based on facts and not sympathy for the families of either the victims or the defendants. He assures them that they are not the ones pronouncing the sentence of death; they are only consultants charged with determining the facts of the case.

Essential Themes

Part of the lasting fascination with the Sacco and Vanzetti case is that its details are extremely convoluted, leading some to question the veracity of the verdicts. In his closing argument, Katzmann insisted that “nationality is not an issue in this case, gentlemen, except as a means of identification.” However, though numerous witnesses gave varying descriptions of the events, they all agreed on one detail: the murderers were Italian. While this ordinarily might not have been notable, the significant racism against Italians and Italian Americans in New England during the 1920s led some to suspect that the police and witnesses had based their identification of Sacco and Vanzetti primarily on their complexion, rather than on any other compelling evidence.

Many radicals suspected Sacco and Vanzetti were accused and convicted of the murders because of their nationality and their connections to a violent group of Italian anarchists. Sacco and Vanzetti’s nationality and radical leanings made them unlikely to receive a fair trial given the political climate of the era. In fact, shortly before the trial, Judge Thayer had delivered a speech deriding the actions of anarchist groups, and some commentators have suggested that his rulings and conduct may have influenced the outcome of the trial. As for the defendants, continued bombings and assassination attempts may have harmed the defense team’s chances of obtaining legal redress for Sacco and Vanzetti following the guilty verdict: in 1926, a bomb destroyed the house of the brother of the man who called the police on the night of the robbery, and a mail bomb sent to the Massachusetts governor’s house was intercepted several months before Sacco and Vanzetti were sent to the electric chair. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on August 23, 1927.

Bibliography and Additional Reading

  • Linder, Douglas. “The Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti.” Famous Trials. U of Missouri–Kansas City, 2001. Web. 27 May 2014.
  • Rogers, Alan.Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2008. Print.
  • “Sacco and Vanzetti: Justice on Trial.” Massachusetts Court System. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, n.d. Web. 27 May 2014.
  • Watson, Bruce.Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind. New York: Viking, 2007. Print.