- Historic Sites
Tragedy In Dedham: A Final Note
February 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 2
To the Editor:
In October, 1958, AMERICAN HERITAGE published an article by Francis Russell in which he said that he was convinced that Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were innocent of the crime of murder, of which they were convicted and for which they suffered death. In the issue of June, 1962, you published an article by the same author in which he said he believes Sacco was guilty but that Vanzetti was innocent. On what evidence, or alleged evidence, does Mr. Russell base his change of mind? He says that a test with Sacco’s .32 Colt pistol made in 1961 proves that the fatal bullet (known as Bullet III) taken from the body of Berardelli (one of the victims of the shooting in South Braintree, Massachusetts, on April 15, 1920) matched the markings of a test bullet fired in 1961. …
To begin with, we must keep in mind that the pistol which belonged to Sacco, and which he carried because he was employed as a night watchman at a shoe factory, was not a distinctive weapon. It was an ordinary .32 caliber Colt, of which there were 300,000 in existence at the time. In order to prove that Sacco’s pistol fired the fatal bullet, it must be proved that there was absolutely no possibility that the bullet was fired by any one of the other 299,999 Colt .32’s.
Captain William Proctor of the Massachusetts State Police declared under oath that it was his opinion Bullet III had not been fired through Sacco’s pistol. Two defense firearms experts testified in agreement.
Now comes Francis Russell, who is no firearms expert, to say that he knows Bullet III was shot through Sacco’s pistol. It is simply basic and fundamental that for a test of any firearm to have any value whatsoever in establishing identity of a weapon, the weapon, when tested, must be in exactly the same condition it was when the original shot was fired. It must also be established conclusively that the bullet to be tested has similarly not undergone any change.
The trial ended in 1921. In 1923, a firearms expert, Albert Hamilton, in making some tests and comparisons, disassembled Sacco’s pistol and two other pistols of similar make and caliber. When the three pistols were reassembled it was discovered that the barrel now attached to Sacco’s pistol was not the original one. This barrel was new; Sacco’s old barrel was rusty. The weapons were again disassembled, and it can only be assumed that in the reassembling, the original rusty Sacco barrel was properly attached to the Sacco pistol. …
In July, 1927, Bullet III and Sacco’s pistol … [were] taken away by the official custodian of state exhibits and carried to his home, where, because of the historical character of the exhibits, the possibility cannot be excluded that he often handled them (perhaps even experimented with them) and allowed other persons to handle them. In 1959, the exhibits were restored to the State laboratory from which they should never have been taken. …
It must be apparent, even to a blind man, that the slightest tampering with exhibits, or a change resulting from passage of time, renders a subsequent test entirely worthless. …
By the time Russell took up his quest, the charge had been made that … there had been a substitution of bullets. If indeed there was such a substitution, all the later testing in the world would prove nothing. The bullet extracted from Berardelli’s body had flattened because of allegedly striking human bone. Russell claims that “this peculiar flattening would have been almost impossible to duplicate in a substitute bullet.” This is a ridiculous assertion. Flattening may be obtained by firing a bullet into soft pine. …
Medical authorities have declared that a bullet which has been imbedded in a human body will reveal evidence of adhering blood for an indefinite period after such imbedding. Thus Russell, in order to prove that Bullet III was the actual bullet which had been taken from Berardelli’s body, had it examined by Professor William Boyd of the Boston University Medical School for evidence of blood stains. And what was the result of this examination? Russell tells us, with almost childlike artlessness, that “unfortunately, because of slight oxidization of the bullet,” the professor “was unable to determine whether any blood traces remained.” What Mr. Russell does not seem to grasp is that by this time there is no certainty that he has even the right bullet or the right pistol!
… What does Russell do now? He has Bullet III washed! In what? … If the bullet was washed in acid, this washing would further erode the bullet and make its microscopic markings valueless from an evidentiary point of view. If it was washed in an innocuous solution, no amount of laundering could restore it to its original condition. …
Russell tells us that “previously the bullet had been covered with some foreign substance that obscured the markings on the base.” What was this foreign substance? Russell does not let the reader in on this secret. In removing the foreign substance, was anything else removed? Russell offers no explanation.
But all this is nothing to what is to follow. On October 11, 1961 (that is, 41 years, 5 months, and 26 days after the original firing!), two firearms experts engaged by Russell conducted their test, which consisted of shooting another bullet through Sacco’s pistol and then comparing it with Bullet III.