Sacco Guilty, Vanzetti Innocent?

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Goddard’s findings, though unofficial, undoubtedly had much influence on the Lowell Committee. When Thompson later appeared before the committee, he made the novel accusation that the prosecution had juggled the evidence by substituting a test bullet and cartridge fired in Sacco’s pistol for the original Shell W found in the gravel and Bullet III taken from Berardelli’s body. As an indication of this he pointed out that the identifying scratches on Bullet III differed from those on the other bullets, being wider apart and uneven—as if made with a different instrument.

The year after Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, Thompson spoke out even more bluntly and emphatically, accusing Captain Proctor of having made the shell and bullet substitution just before the evidence was offered at the trial. After the substitution, according to Thompson, Proctor’s conscience had bothered him to the point that he had just before his death signed the affidavit expressing his doubts.

The certainty that Goddard had hoped to bring to the ballistics evidence was made to seem less than certain in the autumn of 1927 by his findings in the Yorkell murder case in Cleveland. A few weeks after Yorkell, a bootlegger, had been shot down in the street, the police arrested a Frank Milazzo, who was found to be carrying a revolver similar in type to the one that killed Yorkell. Two bullets taken from Yorkell’s body and several bullets test-fired from Milazzo’s pistol were sent to Goddard for examination. After viewing the exhibits through his comparison microscope Goddard announced that one of the bullets found in Yorkell had been fired from Milazzo’s revolver. In spite of Goddard’s findings Milazzo was shortly afterward able to prove that he had bought the revolver new a month after the shooting. Goddard attributed the mistake to a mix-up of bullets at police headquarters. The Cleveland police denied this. Supporters of Sacco and Vanzetti have used the incident to question the infallibility of the comparison microscope. What apparently happened was that Goddard, instead of comparing a murder bullet and a test bullet, had compared the two Yorkell murder bullets with each other. They, of course, matched. Who was at fault it is impossible to say, but the comparison microscope itself was in no way discredited.

In July, 1927, the Sacco-Vanzetti guns and bullets were brought to Boston from the Dedham Courthouse, where they had been in the custody of the clerk of court since the trial, to be examined by the Lowell Committee. Then they disappeared. When in 1959 I tried to see them, they were nowhere to be found. The Dedham clerk of court had a record of their having been sent to Boston but no record of their return. The Massachusetts attorney general’s office had no idea where they were, nor did the Commissioner of Public Safety at state police headquarters.

It took me six months of poking about before I finally managed to discover where they had gone. Apparently, after they had been examined by the Lowell Committee, they were sent to the ballistics laboratory of the state police and placed in the custody of Captain Van Amburgh. He put all the exhibits, each triple-sealed in its official court envelope, in a cardboard box and locked them away. The box remained there almost twenty years. Then when Van Amburgh retired he took several ballistics souvenirs with him, among them the box of Sacco-Vanzetti exhibits.

Van Amburgh—who died in 1949—was succeeded in the laboratory by his son. The son in turn retired in 1951 to Kingston, a small town near Plymouth, about forty miles from Boston. When I telephoned him to ask about the Sacco-Vanzetti exhibits, he refused at first to say whether he had them or not. But after I had persuaded the Boston Globe to run a feature article on the missing exhibits, he admitted to reporters that he did have them but regarded himself merely as their “custodian.” The Globe story was a Sunday sensation. Among the paper’s early readers was the Commissioner of Public Safety, J. Henry Goguen. The Commissioner at once sent two state troopers to Kingston to demand the surrender of the exhibits. The next day the guns and bullets, still in their box, were back in the state police laboratory.

When I at last saw the exhibits at the laboratory they were relatively free from corrosion, although the clips that fastened them in their triple envelopes had rusted into the paper. Apparently they had not been disturbed since 1927. What I first planned to do was to have comparison tests made of Bullet III and a bullet fired from Sacco’s pistol, and similar comparisons made with Shell W. Then I hoped to determine whether or not the other bullets and shells had been fired from a single gun.

Yet I knew that even if Bullet III could be proved beyond dispute to have come from Sacco’s pistol, there still remained the question raised by Thompson of bullet substitution. There was at least the possibility that the bullets might still test for blood. If it could now be demonstrated that all six bullets had traces of human blood on them, then the evidence would be overwhelming that there had been no bullet substitution. If on the other hand Bullet III showed no trace of blood, whereas the other five bullets did, the presumption would be strong that Proctor or someone connected with the prosecution had substituted one of the bullets fired into sawdust.