- Historic Sites
Tragedy In Dedham
A restrospect of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial
October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
During my month in Dedham I couldn’t help but wonder about that earlier jury. Drawn in much the same way that we were, they couldn’t have been so very different from ourselves. And what were we? Some middle-class, some working-class, a few of us stupid, a few opinionated, but most of us reasonable enough to weigh an issue. At least we tried to overcome our prejudices; we felt it on our conscience that we should be fair. The jury I sat on would have been prejudiced against Reds, but they would not have convicted a Communist on a capital charge because of his political beliefs. It didn’t seem to me the SaccoVanxetti jury could have been otherwise. Granted even that the foreman was prejudiced, there would have been some of the others who would have stood out against injustice. I IeIt sure that when the jury decided that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty, it was because they were convinced that they were guilty of murder.
Thinking of the great trial I found myself wondering how I should have voted if I had been on the Sacco-Van/etti jury, knowing little or nothing of the background of the case but merely faced with what svas offered me day after day in six weeks of testimony. As soon as I had the time I went back to the transcript of the trial itself. Il there was any answer to this question, it would be there.
There was much that the transcript could not olter —the actuality of the past moment, the atmosphere of the court with its tensions, the appearance of the witnesses and the defendants, the subtleties that could be gathered from a tone of voice but could not be preserved in black and white. Yet the substance, the prime matter of the trial endured, each word spoken during that six weeks pressed and dried between the now yellowing pages. Over 2,000 pages of testimony faced me, with the repetitions, the irrelcvancies, the long-drawn-out legal impasses that I had become all too familiar with as a juror—and then the sudden revelation of the living fact from the dead record. One hundred and sixty-seven witnesses there were, including the ballistics experts.
Through the long days of another summer I occupied myself with this inchoate mass that gradually took shape and form as I read. I tried to disavow any preconceptions, to imagine myself in the jury box at Dedham occupied solely with the question of whether two men murdered two other men, and knowing no more about it in advance than the evidence offered. How should I have judged?
I knew one thing anyway—that I should have disregarded the experts. My month had taught me that. Experts canceled each other out as the paid bias of either side, and a jury then decided on other grounds. The real grounds in this case were the half do/en or so witnesses who identified Sacco—and to a lesser extent Vanzetti—as being at or near the scene of the murder on that April day. Jn opposition to them were an equal number of witnesses who testified that these two were not the men. It was a question finally of which group to believe. Every witness who saw the get-away car testified there were five men in it. The weakest part of the Commonwealth s case was that it made no effort to account for the remaining three, as Ehrmann did in his book. And the prosecution never did establish an adequate motive for the crime.
On the other hand Sacco and Vanzetti were both armed the night the police picked them up, Sacco with a revolver of the type that fired the murder bullet, Vanzetti with one that might have been taken from the murdered paymaster.
Sacco maintained that he had put his revolver in his pocket that afternoon and forgotten about it; Vanzetti said that he carried his for protection. Both statements may have been true. Often the lame excuse is really the truthful one. Yet here were two men, philosophical anarchists, who maintained that the use of force was never justified; during the war, they had become fugitives from military service. Their philosophy denied the use of force, even for self-protection (as it must). Yet when they were picked up, almost by accident, they had on them the weapons of force. If they had not been armed the chances are that they would never have come to trial.
The trial may well have been more unfair than seems apparent in the record. There the most glaring fault is the district attorney’s harrying interrogation of the two men as to their beliefs, their lack of patriotism, and their reasons for running away to avoid the draft. That the judge allowed such questioning to go on was outrageous.
Its impropriety stares out of the printed page. Here certainly was error, yet I cannot believe that this was primary in the jury’s verdict. The judge’s charge seems reasonable enough in cold print. Reading it over twice I could not take exception to it.
I was finally left with the feeling that if I had been on the original jury and heard the evidence that was placed before those men, I should probably have voted with the others. Yet I was not really certain.
Looking back at it now over a lapse of years the case of Sacco and Vanzetti becomes a tragedy in the classical sense. It was no melodrama, as many have seen it, with good neatly divided from evil. Katzmann was as sharp as most district attorneys out for a conviction, a limited man but not a bad one. Judge Thayer could not hide the bias of his obsessions off the bench. He was indiscreet and he was weak, but he made an effort to conduct the trial fairly. Both he and Katzmann believed to their dying day that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty.