Interview with Theodore Grippo, author of the book "With Malice Aforethought, The Execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti"
Q.- When did you first learn about the Sacco and Vanzetti case and what was it about the case that interested you?
When I was ten years old, I asked my father about Sacco and Vanzetti. I had heard their names, probably on the radio, in connection with the tenth anniversary of their executions. I still remember the look on my father's face as he explained that Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti had been sentenced to death for robbery and murder, but many believed they were innocent. My father spoke emotionally of the beautiful letters Sacco wrote to his children just before he was executed, and of Vanzetti's kind nature and brilliant mind. I believe that my father, an Italian immigrant shoemaker, identified with Sacco, an Italian immigrant shoe trimmer. My father's expression and tone denoted sadness marked with a fear I could not then understand. I later learned he felt threatened by the ill will many Americans displayed toward Italians as a result of that case.
Q.- Why and when did you decide to delve deeper into the court record?
A great deal of publicity was given to Sacco and Vanzetti in 1977, the occasion of the 50th anniversary of their executions, particularly because of Governor Dukakis' Proclamation that declared August 23, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti Memorial Day. The Proclamation was supported by a report authored by Alexander J. Cella, Esq., Professor Alan Dershowitz, Esq., and others, finding that the murder trial of the two Italians was permeated with unfairness.
At that time, I learned about the opinion testimony of Captain William Proctor, the Commonwealth's ballistics expert, that Bullet III, which was the bullet that killed the payroll guard, was "consistent with" having been fired through Sacco's Colt .32. After Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted, and during a motion for a new trial, Proctor repudiated his opinion. He admitted under oath that he meant only that Bullet III was shot through some Colt .32, but that he found no evidence Bullet III was shot through Sacco's Colt .32. He further said he repeatedly so advised the prosecutor before the trial and that he and the prosecutor fashioned his opinion to the "consistent with" language. Harvard law Professor Edmund Morgan termed Proctor's and the prosecutor's actions "monstrous misconduct." Harvard Professor Felix Frankfurter (later, Justice of the United States Supreme Court) was outraged by Proctor's misleading opinion.
When I learned about Proctor's misleading and fraudulent opinion, I determined to one day learn all I could about the case.
Q.- Many books have been written about the case over the years. Why another book? What did you learn that was new?
Although many books have been written about the Sacco-Vanzetti case, they do not, in my opinion, deal in depth as I do with the Dedham murder trial, Vanzetti's earlier Plymouth trial and the trial of Angelina DeFalco, in her attempt to shake down Sacco and Vanzetti for a $50,000 bribe. Moreover, I provide significant background material regarding the political, economic, cultural, religious and societal conditions of the times that explain the Red Scare hysteria and bigotry that existed against Italian immigrants in 1920.
Finally, and most important of all, I discovered new evidence that had been suppressed by authorities that, in my opinion, establishes Sacco and Vanzetti were framed. The details of my analysis, including significant suppressed documents, are found in Chapter 15, The Ballistics Controversy, and Chapter 16, The Rosetta Stone.
Q.- Why do you think it was so important for the prosecution to find them guilty and have them executed?
There is significant evidence to support the belief that prosecutor Frederick Katzmann and Judge Webster Thayer were determined to find Sacco and Vanzetti guilty and have them executed in order to clean out Boston and perhaps the entire country of anarchists, and that they agreed to work together to accomplish that result. It should be noted that the same prosecutor Katzmann had, a few months before the Sacco and Vanzetti case, prosecuted Sergie Zagroff, an anarchist, before the same Judge Thayer, and that when the jury found Zagroff not guilty, Judge Thayer was furious. Also, when the Sacco-Vanzetti case was filed, Judge Thayer lobbied the chief judge for the assignment to judge the case.
New England during the 1920s was in a state of Red Scare hysteria, following the Russian revolution of 1917. There was great fear among the establishment that a socialist workers' revolution was in the making and that Southern and Eastern European immigrants espousing anarchism and other forms of socialism were trying to take over America. Judge Thayer and prosecutor Katzmann, in my opinion, had a misguided sense that it was their duty to put an end to the threat. Finding Sacco and Vanzetti guilty and executing them would serve as a warning to other radicals and a way of ending the threat of socialism in America.
Q.- Why do you think there continues to be interest in the case 85 years later?
The Sacco-Vanzetti case and its aftermath illuminate today's issues of immigration, terrorism and war. To my mind, the case is the mother of all wrongful convictions and wrongful convictions are relevant in light of new DNA technology. As a member of the Advisory Board of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Northwestern University Law School, I am very familiar with a number of wrongful convictions that have been reversed. Since 1990, as a result of improved DNA testing and the efforts of organizations like Northwestern University Law School and other Innocence Projects, over two hundred prisoners have been found wrongfully convicted of crimes ranging from robbery to rape and murder. The Sacco-Vanzetti case teaches that the duty of the public prosecutor is not to find guilt and convictions at any cost, but to seek justice at all costs.
Q.- Do you see any similarities between the role of the state then, in the 20s, and now, with the establishment of the Patriot Act and the many cases of imprisonment and sentencing of people accused of terrorism?
There are definite similarities between the reaction of the State during the Red Scare hysteria of the 1920s and the conduct of our government following the events of September 11. History reveals government limitations on civil rights during periods of war or serious threats to the country's survival. Remember the Korematsu Supreme Court decision that authorized the relocation and imprisonment of Japanese American citizens following Pearl Harbor in 1941. The rationale is that our Constitution is not a suicide pact during times of war or serious threats to our existence.
Q.- What has been the reaction to your book up to now?
The reaction to my book has been gratifying. After I completed my research, and particularly after I uncovered new evidence, I was convinced that Sacco and Vanzetti were framed. I was then determined to clear their names and also bring attention to how prejudice against Italian immigrants was an important factor in convicting and executing the two Italians.
A few lines from the then popular poet Jim Seymour, provide a clue as to the attitude of 1920 New Englanders toward Italian Americans:
What's all this fuss they're making about them guys ?
I have received very favorable reactions from many readers - some reviews are contained on my website www.tedgrippo.com. I've given lectures before interested groups at the Northbrook and Evanston, Illinois public libraries and Italian American clubs in Illinois and Milwaukee; I gave an hour long interview about my book to the well known Milton Rosenberg on his WGN radio show; Judge Andrew Napolitano from Fox News gave a strong favorable review in Reason Magazine, and to me personally, by phone; Governor Michael Dukakis wrote a personal letter to me. He said that my book "is a very valuable addition to the literature on the Sacco-Vanzetti case;" and a number of professors of criminal law have given me favorable responses to my book. Finally, my book was given excellent reviews in a number of magazines, local newspapers and the American Bar Association Journal.
Q.- You will be lecturing next month in August in Boston, the place where this miscarriage of justice took place. What are your expectations for these presentations?
I hope my August lectures will present a convincing argument that Sacco and Vanzetti were not only subjected to an unfair trial, but were, in fact, framed. In doing so, I hope to clear their names and to vindicate Italian immigrants who have been negatively impacted as a result of the Sacco-Vanzetti case.