The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti: A New England Legend (6 page)

BOOK: The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti: A New England Legend
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“‘
Question:
Can you describe him to these gentlemen here?'”

“Whereupon, Miss Splaine answered: ‘Yes, sir. He was a man that I should say was slightly taller than I am. He weighed possibly from 140 to 155 pounds. He was a muscular—he was an active looking man. I noticed particularly the left hand was a good-sized hand, a hand that denoted strength or a shoulder that—'

“‘
Question:
So that the hand you said you saw where?'”

“‘
Answer:
The left hand, that was already on the back of the front seat, on the back of the front seat. He had a gray, what I thought was a shirt, had a grayish, like navy color, and the face was what we would call clear-cut, clean-cut face. Through here he was a little narrow, just a little narrow. The forehead was high. The hair was brushed back and it was between, I should think, two inches and two and one-half inches in length, and had dark eyebrows, but the complexion was a white, peculiar white that looked greenish.'”

“There is her description of what she had seen in that brief glimpse fourteen months before. Also, in the course of this recollection, she identified Nicola Sacco as the man she had seen. One would say, in the normal course of normal things, that such recollection under the circumstances, and such identification, is not only impossible, but to some extent, monstrous. Monstrous, that is, in a manner better explained through the experience of one Lewis Pelser. Like Miss Splaine, Pelser at first could not identify Sacco and Vanzetti, but again like Miss Splaine, he recovered remarkable powers of recall. At the time that Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, Pelser was taken by the police to look at them. He stated that he could not possibly identify them as the criminals. Whereupon, Pelser, who worked for a shoe company closely associated with Slater and Morrill, the firm which had been robbed, was suddenly discharged and found himself jobless. A few weeks later, his power of recall freshened. He was re-employed by the same shoe company, and now he was suddenly able to identify Sacco and Vanzetti as the criminals. He was not the only one. In case after case, recollection and joblessness were intimately linked. Sometimes, when the weapon of discharge could not be employed, the District Attorney and those who cooperated with him on such matters, in their zealousness to bring the criminals to justice, used every manner of threat, both directly and by innuendo. Sometimes this procedure was so bare-faced that the proof of it remains for us in the trial record itself.”

“It is indeed a bitter thing to have to give voice to accusations such as these, and enumerate conclusions such as I have enumerated, but they are to the point in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti. The execution scheduled for tonight is the logical outcome of that incredible and merciless trial. Certain people believe with great intensity that Sacco and Vanzetti cannot be allowed to remain alive. I state this gravely but unhesitatingly.”

“It is important to recollect that the crime at South Braintree took place at a particular time, a strange, and to some extent, awful time in the history of this country. The passions of the entire country were inflamed by the notorious mass arrests which were instituted by Attorney General Palmer. Reds and Bolsheviks were everywhere, on every corner, in every dark alley, in every factory, and particularly in those factories where workers murmured that their wages were insufficient to feed and clothe their families. Strangely, or not so strangely, this condition created bewhiskered devils who, loaded with bombs, were found behind every bush—and the identity of these Bolsheviks and agitators with Americans of foreign extraction was implied if not stated every day in almost every newspaper in the land. Millions and millions of people were led to believe that there was a radical threat to the very existence of this country as a free nation. Within this inflamed situation, a particularly cold-blooded and brutal crime took place here in Massachusetts, and the fairly trustworthy identification of the criminals as Italians, further inflamed already existing prejudices. As the accused, Sacco and Vanzetti are brought into a courtroom. They are unable to speak English. They are frightened, harassed, poorly clothed, unkempt. Witness after witness is called to the stand and asked whether these two are, or resemble, the people who took part in the crime more than a year ago, so quickly committed and so violent in its reactions on people and impressions left upon memory. Witness after witness identifies Sacco and Vanzetti.”

“Gentlemen, what, precisely, does this mean in terms of legal evidence?” It is a part of what so many of us proudly refer to as Anglo-Saxon law, that a man is not to be convicted of murder, with his life in jeopardy, unless there is indisputable eye-witness evidence. Even though people have been convicted on circumstantial evidence, the fact remains, and the gravity, the profound gravity involved in the legal taking of human life, demands such precautions. Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted through eye-witness evidence. The rub is, gentlemen, that it was impossible for the eye-witness to be telling the truth; that far more trustworthy eye-witness evidence proves that Sacco and Vanzetti were miles from the scene of the crime when it was committed, and that one piece of circumstantial evidence remains quite unshakable.

“I come to that circumstantial evidence now. When Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, Sacco possessed a pistol. That pistol was introduced as evidence in the trial, and a famous ballistics expert, Captain Proctor by name, was called in to examine the pistol found on Sacco, and to offer an opinion as to whether a bullet taken from a murder victim's body was actually fired from this pistol. A capable ballistics expert is able to make a fairly certain determination in such cases, and Captain Proctor was considered to be this type of expert. He made his examination, and he came to the conclusion that the bullet used in the murder could not have been fired from the pistol owned by and found on Nicola Sacco. However, the District Attorney in the case seems to have discussed the matter with Captain Proctor, and rather than have his case shattered, prevailed upon Captain Proctor to answer the question: ‘Have you an opinion as to whether bullet number three was fired from the Colt automatic which is in evidence [Sacco's pistol]?' in this strange manner: ‘My opinion is that it is consistent with being fired from that pistol.'”

“There is an answer, gentlemen, that will echo and reecho for a long time in the pages of history. What does
consistent
mean in this case?” The jury evidently took it to mean that he identified Sacco's pistol as the murder weapon. Such it would seem to me in plain English, as we know plain English. However, it meant nothing of the sort. It was the compromise decided upon by the District Attorney and the ballistics expert, and afterwards, in a deposition, this same ballistics expert said the following:

“‘Had I been asked the direct question: whether I had found any affirmative evidence whatever that this so-called mortal bullet had passed through this particular Sacco's pistol, I should have answered then, as I do now without hesitation, in the negative.'”

“One would think, gentlemen, that this evidence, reversing the earlier statement of the ballistics expert and coming to light through a deposition filed in one of the appeals of Sacco and Vanzetti, would warrant a new trial. But that is not the case. I spoke of evidence before, as offered by people who see a thing with their own eyes. I have now balanced evidence against possibility, probability and certainty, because all too often one sees with one's eyes what one desires to see with one's eyes, even as a weak man says with his tongue; words which a venal district attorney and a prejudiced judge desire him to say. In the United States, in Massachusetts, and in South Braintree as well, a situation was created in 1920, which caused a number of people to desire to see men like Sacco and Vanzetti the accused and convicted in a murder case, and thereby as men deserving the death sentence. Were not these two men reds, and therefore enemies of all that is decent? Were they not radicals, and therefore unlike ordinary decent and upstanding citizens? Were they not against capitalism, which is certainly the only and God-given way of life in these United States? Were they not opposed to war, and had we not just finished a war to make the world safe for democracy—a war to which no decent and upright citizen could be opposed? Did they not speak sneeringly of the profit system, and were we not dedicated by God and the Constitution to an eternal system of industry which bases itself upon profits, upon the unflagging desire of one man to make more money than the next, even if he has to sweat it out of his neighbor's hide?

“These, perhaps, are very harsh questions for me to ask, gentlemen, but I ask them so that you may be the better instructed in the practice of law. I know full well the gravity of my statements. But no man faces life until he reconciles his own actions with the situations imposed by life. This makes for gravity. It made for gravity in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, and before today is over, they will be made to pay with their lives for the beliefs they held, not for the crimes they committed. Evidence, gentlemen, can be master or servant, as I have shown to some degree, and will show even more concretely.…”

The professor lectured for twenty minutes more, yet when he had finished, he sensed that a very important thing he had wanted to say, remained unsaid. He had wanted to say that in a court ruled, owned and operated by the University President, the Governor of the Commonwealth and the Judge who sat in judgment, there could be no justice for two men like Sacco and Vanzetti. Yet if he had said just that, he would have closed all doors to his own future.

The lecture was over, but still he was held rigid by his thoughts. He felt a peculiar and particular weakness that always came upon him after he had been lecturing for a long while, and he wished, as always, that he could be immediately alone; but the students crowded around him, and some of them thanked him, and others clung stubbornly to things he had said. One of them expressed it thus,

“But surely, sir, they will not execute them tonight. What can we do? There must be something that we can do.”

“I am afraid there is nothing we can do,” he answered.

“But you don't mean to infer, sir, that all of law is a mockery, that courts are worthless, and that there is no justice?”

This shocked him. He stared at the student who had challenged him with this, a red-headed, bright-eyed lad, and suddenly the Professor became even more somber, sober, and afraid. Well, it was a time for being afraid, the Professor thought ruefully.

“Did you mean that, sir?” the student insisted.

“If I meant that,” he found himself saying, “then my own life would be as wasted as yours.”

“Yet, everything you say adds up to injustice. How can there be justice if all forces of law create injustice?”

“Well, of course, that would be another lecture, wouldn't it?”

He looked at his watch. He made excuses, and rushed away, shaking off the reporters who plucked at his sweat-soaked clothes and threw their eager questions after him.

Chapter 5

F
INISHED
with his breakfast and half way through his second cup of coffee, the President of the University stared fixedly at the portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson, narrowed his eyes, and belched. He belched with prerogative, if not with grace; he picked his nose in the same way; this was what someone in the English department had referred to as “the lordly simplicity of arrogance,” partly an aphorism, and in part a non sequitur. He did things that would have marked another of like venerability as a dirty old man, but his fierce and somewhat incredible snobbishness still exempted him from that designation.

The instructor sitting opposite him finished his tale.

“Only now, only five minutes ago,” the University President said with disbelief. “It passes one's understanding. I tell you, the Jew has erupted like a volcano. We will never hear the end of him.” Once again, he fixed his eyes—which someone had described as piercing—upon the portrait of Emerson. “I speak not of one man, but in general terms, when I say
the Jew
,” he explained. “Would you repeat what he said—the part about a thirst for blood?”

“I wouldn't say he used just those words—”

At that moment the Dean of the Law School entered. He sniffed wrath, and joined himself to it. He assumed a station at one side of the broad, pleasant dining room, with its fine Chippendale furniture, its hand-blocked wall paper, and its lovely and faded eighteenth century hooked rug, placing himself directly under the portrait of Henry Thoreau, his hands folded comfortably across his plump, protruding belly.

“He is on his way up here, sir,” he said, trying to combine in one smirk both regret and anticipation. The President, however, paid no mind whatsoever to him, driving hard on the young instructor.

“No—no indeed? But so you reported it.”

“In effect, sir. I wish to be scrupulous.”

“A commendable desire not shared by too many,” said the President of the University.

“In my desire to be scrupulous, I must of necessity report his words with some scrupulousness. He inferred that there were certain people in high places who, out of a taste for blood also inferred, desired with absoluteness the death of these two Italians, Sacco and Vanzetti.”

“Ha! Precisely! A taste for blood.”

“Implicit, sir, if I may.”

“Did you hear?” he asked the Dean of the Law School. The Dean nodded. “Not stated, but implied.”

“And you did not stop him?”

“I hardly could,” the Dean of the Law School protested. “I came into the room after he had been speaking for at least fifteen minutes, and I felt, quite correctly, I think, that any attempt to halt him would have been far more disastrous than anything he might say. This is something for us to consider, for he has placed himself in a powerful position, if I may say so. He is shrewd. He shares that quality.”

BOOK: The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti: A New England Legend
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