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The Sacco-Vanzetti Case

In response to:

America's Dreyfus Case from the November 5, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Brain Jackson’s The Black Flag, Francis Russell states his belief that Sacco was guilty of the 1921 South Braintree murder and robbery of which he and Vanzetti were convicted. In so doing he cites the results of various ballistics tests showing that bullet III, one of the bullets introduced in evidence at the trial, and shell W, a bullet similarly introduced in evidence, were fired from the pistol found on Sacco at the time of his arrest. He also mentions, but dismisses, the question that has been raised as to whether these exhibits might have been fraudulently substituted by the prosecution.

It is not possible in a brief letter to discuss all the issues surrounding the possibility of a substitution, but this much may be said: the reasons that Mr. Russell gives for ruling out this possibility are specious. To begin with, his statement that Captain William Proctor, who gave an opinion after the trial that bullet III had not come from Sacco’s pistol, had custody of the ballistics evidence from the beginning and thus was the only person who could have made a substitution is not supported by available evidence. New documents show that Proctor first received these bullets almost four months after the crime. They do not however show that they remained in his possession, and when Proctor testified at the trial in June 1921 the prosecution carefully avoided asking him any questions regarding the custody of the bullets. Furthermore, newly released state police files, whose significance Mr. Russell disparages (and which, it is true, Brian Jackson does not seem to have read very carefully) also show that police chief Michael Stewart had Sacco’s pistol in his possession between the arrest and the trial.

Secondly, Mr. Russell says that no one in 1921 knew that shells could be matched with particular weapons by their breech block markings, and that therefore no one would have had any reason to substitute a shell. This statement is both false and misleading. Affidavits by ballistics experts involved in the case show that the significance of breech block markings was well known to them. More to the point, all four experts who testified at the trial addressed the question of whether shell W, as well as bullet III, was fired from Sacco’s pistol, and sought to answer this question based on a variety of indications. The substitution or addition of a shell, as well as a bullet, would have been entirely logical.

These questions are dealt with more fully—as is the whole question of the guilt or innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti—in a book now in preparation which I have co-authored with the late William Young. In the meantime, let it be said that the issue of Sacco’s guilt is very far from being as open and shut as Mr. Russell would have us believe.

David E. Kaiser

Carnegie-Mellon University

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Francis Russel replies:

If one starts with the a priori assumption that Sacco was innocent, one must also make certain a priori assumptions about the ballistics evidence. Comparative microscope tests in 1927 and again in 1961 have demonstrated beyond any reasonable—though not unreasonable—doubt that the so-called Bullet III taken from a murdered guard’s body and offered in evidence at the Sacco-Vanzetti trial had been fired from Sacco’s pistol. For Sacco to be innocent, Bullet III would have to be a fraudulent substitution. If Bullet III is genuine, Sacco was guilty.

Leaving aside the ballistics minutiae, the fundamental question remains: if such a substitution really took place, who was responsible? Two years after the trial Captain Proctor in his affidavit stated that though Bullet III had been fired from a Colt, he had found no evidence that it had been fired from Sacco’s Colt. He did not add that he had found no evidence that it had not been fired from Sacco’s Colt. He simply did not know. But if he had arranged a bullet switch, he would have known that Bullet III, whatever its antecedents, had been fired from Sacco’s pistol.

If such a substitution had been made, the only others who might have made it were District Attorney Frederick Katzmann and Assistant District Attorney Harold Williams. Before the trial Katzmann told the defense attorney Fred Moore that he was willing to agree not to try to prove that any particular bullet came from any particular weapon, in brief to drop the whole ballistics evidence. Moore refused. But if Katzmann had arranged a substitution he would scarcely have been willing to disregard his prearranged evidence.

Beyond that, there are the matters of motivation and character. For Katzmann the trial was just another trial. Under the adversary system he would do his best to convict but if he failed it would be of minor consequence to him or his career. Before the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti he had never heard of them. It was Moore who took a commonplace case, class-angled it and made it into an international issue even though in the end he came to doubt his clients’ innocence.

Both before and after the trial Katzmann and Williams had honorable careers untouched by scandal. Williams later became a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, so highly respected, of such probity, that even the last surviving Sacco-Vanzetti defense counsel, Herbert Ehrmann, could find nothing to say against him except that he considered him wrong in that particular case. Williams, who died in 1962, never changed his opinion that Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty and that the trial was fair. The recently retired Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reardon, who knew both Katzmann and Williams, considers it inconceivable that either man could have stooped to fabricating evidence or connived at trickery leading to the execution of two innocent men.

Katzmann’s career was more modest. He died in the Fifties. Among his friends was Jerry McAnarney who had assisted Moore in the defense of Sacco and Vanzetti and who had remained with the case until the end. Some years before Katzmann’s death McAnarney was in his office. With tears in his eyes Katzmann complained of the vituperation he had been subjected to, the slander and abuse, since the Sacco-Vanzetti trial. “No matter what they have said about you,” McAnarney told him, “you were all right, Fred.”

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