The Sacco-Vanzetti affair is the most famous and controversial case in American legal history. In our history, justice has not always resulted in fairness, but instead in the denial of the rights of ordinary citizens. In the 1920's, a tumultuous decade of social unrest, numerous Americans were discriminated against for their political or religious beliefs and ethnicity. It was a decade of intense nationalism, in which the rights of immigrants were violated in such events as the Red Scare and Palmer Raids. In May of 1920, the infamous trial and conviction of Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti began. Since this time, there has been much controversy as to their guilt. Could they have truly received a just trial in such a social climate? Did Sacco and Vanzetti's ethnicity and political beliefs affect their trial and convictions? It is believed by many that these factors, rather than justice, played the greater hand in the trial. The dominating motives behind the convictions of Sacco and Vanzetti were not, as has been argued, the evidence and testimony presented against them, but rather the personal biases and nativist mentality of the trial players in light of the defendants' anarchist views and Italian background. On the afternoon of April 15, 1920, in South Braintree, Massachusetts, two gunmen robbed and killed a paymaster and his guard as they transferred $15,776 from the Slater & Morrill Shoe factory. Three weeks later, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested in a police trap and were found with numerous anarchist pamphlets and weapons. Both men were self-proclaimed anarchists and atheists, and in 1917, followed anarchist leader Luigi Galleani to Mexico in order to avoid the American draft. However, neither man had any previous criminal record and both were well-respected citizens in the Italian American community. Although not originally under suspicion for the crimes, both men were held by police and eventually indicted for the crimes. On July 14, 1921, after a seven-week trial, the two immigrants were convicted of murder. Finally, after a six-year waiting period of appeals, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed (Montgomery 4-14). Their arrests thus came during the Palmer raids of 1919-1920 and the mass hysteria of anti-immigration feelings. As one popular Senator of the period stated about immigrants, "All forces of government should be utilized to run these fellows down and hang them"( qtd. in Avrich 165). Could a fair and impartial jury be found against such a political climate? It seems unlikely. The jury of Dedham, Massachusetts trial consisted of twelve white men of a variety of occupations such as real estate, sales, grocery, and machinery (Montgomery 84). As one researcher states, "The jury was selected. They were all cut out of the same bolt of cloth: staid, torpid, highly patriotic, oblivious to progress or a progressive idea
"(Montgomery 83). In a time of such turmoil and anti-immigration beliefs, the evidence suggests that these white males had a difficult time forgoing their internalized social prejudices in order to judge Sacco and Vanzetti fairly. One may argue that these jurors could give the men every fair consideration, as U.S. citizens doing their duty (Montgomery 84). At the time, however, wasn't the duty of the citizens to save the country from the "dirty Reds?" And how do such critics answer to the obvious prejudice of jury foreman, Walter R. Ripley? Ripley, a stockkeeper and former chief or police, was a man who entered the courtroom each day and saluted the flag: an ideal patriot. In the years after the trial, friend William Daly stated in an affidavit, that on his way to Dedham, Ripley responded to a question of Sacco and Vanzetti's innocencewith, "Damn them, they ought to hang them anyway!" (Feuerlicht 202) This was the leader of the jury: a man with a seemingly nativist mentality and prejudice towards non-Americans. Perhaps had the jury been the...
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