THE United States government is on its trial for murder. The indictment is that in order to conceal the secret murder by its police of an Italian worker, Andrea Salsedo, it is now judicially murdering two other Italian workers, Nicola Sacco and Hartolomeo Vanzetti.
First of all, the facts. In the spring of 1920 war passion and panic that had been worked up to even a higher pitch in America than elsewhere, and had not there worked itself off in war exhaustion, was diverted by the German collapse and the Russian revolution from the "Boche" to the "Bolshie." And the cruel hounding of pacifists or pro-Germans became an even more cruel harrying of Reds and Russians. But as Red Russians were found to be rare, justice was ready to be satisfied with any foreigner at all suspected of "radical" opinions. All of which is nothing new or peculiar; for a century ago, after the Napoleonic wars, we had in England the same persecutions; even the same perversion of legal proceedings. Though in fighting the workers today our authorities have at least learned how better to preserve appearances.
In May, 1920, then the United States Attorney-General, Mitchell Palmer, was conducting a grand offensive of "Red Drives," raids, and wholesale arrests, with the help of the casual informers, frame-ups, agents provocateur, etc. And when we find Mr. Palmer, a Quaker, appointed by President Wilson, conducting such a campaign, small wonder that the American police, never distinguished for peaceful persuasion or international sentiment, treated every foreign-born worker suspected of radical views as a suitable subject for the "third degree."
In consequence, one of their victims, Salsedo, a labor leader, was found one day dead on the pavement under the window of the room in the private prison of the New York secret police. Every effort was made to hush up the scandal by deportation and terrorism. But one fellow prisoner, Klia, before being sent out of the country, succeeded in getting out an affidavit that Salsedo and he had been tortured and threatened with death, to make them confess to charges of conspiracy. The torments to which he was subjected were such that, it is believed, he voluntarily leaped from this fourteenth story window to certain death. Scandal was such that even the most patriotic pressmen and 100 per cent politicians could not afford to ignore it. It became clear that public opinion was shocked.
But a vigorous counter-attack might still save the situation if the police could convince opinion that the Italians involved were a gang of criminals.
Accordingly, Sacco and Vanzetti, two socialist immigrants, were selected as suitable subjects. For they were leaders in the movement for the defense of Salsedo, and their conviction on a capital charge would discredit their cause, disgust the neutral public, and deter their own partisans. The charge was ready to hand. For a series of "pay roll rob- beries," with violence, by a gang of motor bandits in Massachusetts had incensed public opinion, already irritated with police inefficiency against the swelling tide of real crime. The difficulty was that these robberies were clearly by professional criminals, whereas Vanzetti had nothing against him, but that he had been driven from job after job for being an agitator, while Sacco was a family man, a frugal liver and a skilled, trusted employee, who had saved money.
Nevertheless, both were accused of one of the worst of these crimes in which a paymaster and his guard had been shot dead at South Braintree, and $15,000 robbed from them by a motor gang. Vanzetti was also accused of another robhery at Bridgewater, and this trial was hurried on and a conviction secured—the judge observing in summing up that "although he may not have actually committed the crime attributed to him, he is nevertheless morally culpable, as being the enemy of our existing institutions."
Having thus secured a "previous conviction" it seemed safe to proceed with the capital charge. Let it be said at once that the only facts proved against them were that when arrested they were armed and made confused and contradictory statements which, in view of the police terror against all Reds, is not surprising. But every other evidence connecting them with the murder — and it was insignificant and unsubstantial enough to start with — was overwhelmed at the trial by contrary and more reliable testimony.
The original suggestion that a friend of Vanzetti's owned a car like the one used by the murderers was never even presented at the trial. The attempt to fit the bullets used to their revolvers failed. The police witnesses swore that Vanzetti was (a) driving the car; (b) beside the driver; (c) in the back seat; (d) that he arrived by train the day of the murder; (c) that he came by train the night before; no real identification was attempted; no money traced to the prisoners; while among the alibis sworn was one by an official of the Italian consulate. There was, in fact, no case at all. It Is indeed amazing; and alarming that by mere appeals to passion and panic a conviction was secured from any New England judge and jury.
But perhaps two quotations will give a better idea of the character of the proceedings. Thus, an examination of the record shows that one Ripley who had gone about before the trial saying, "Damn them, they ought to hang, anyway," was made foreman of the jury, and had "evidence," i. e., revolvers and cartridges privately put in his possession to influence the jury in their discussion out of court.
Again, the judge, in his summing up, referred to the prisoners as being "conscious of guilt as murderers, slackers and radicals." And after an appeal to passion, panic, and prejudice, racial, social and religious, he concluded: "The verdicts do not rest in my judgment on the tes- timony of eyewitnesses; for the defendants called more witnesses than the Commonwealth to testi- fy that neither defendant was in the bandit car.
The evidence that convicted was circumstantial, and known in law as "consciousness of guilt". Under which ruling everyone who in times of political persecution shows fear and confu- sion on being arrested pleads guilty thereby to any charge which authority may thereafter trump up against him.
And America claims to be the true mark of the ancient Common Law of England. Well, perhaps it is. The good old law as administered in the Bloody Assize. But we have not done yet. During the five years that these two workers have been kept in expectation of execution the truth has been leaking out.
The three principal police witnesses have admitted that they lied, and a certain convicted murderer and professional criminal, Celestino Madeiros, has confessed under oath to the crime and cleared the accused of complicity.
And still American "justice" holds these men under daily menace of electrocution — which, indeed, may have been executed before these lines are read. Now there is nothing but a few treaties to prevent Americans making it a capital offense in their country to be of foreign race and radical views. But the present methods of judicial murder in "God's country" are really rather out of date. It is a far more merciful and practical way of getting rid of people whose opinions are not yours to shoot them out of hand for "attempts to escape," than to torture them for years with solemn threats and then electrocute them for "consciousness of guilt as slackers and radicals."