Lessons learned and shared at Fuller Village from a 1920 trial

Fuller Village residents Manny, left, and Sandy Kassler, right, speak with former Mass. Gov. Michael Dukakis after a presentation on how the law changed after the prosecution of the 1920 Sacco and Vanzetti case.

(Photo by Laura Griffin)

Nearly 200 people recently filled the function room at Fuller Village to discuss the century-old Sacco and Vanzetti case with former Mass. Gov. Michael Dukakis and Massachusetts Appeals Court Associate Justice Peter Agnes Jr.

For one observer, the Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti case was the O.J. Simpson case of the early 1900s since it provoked riots, debate, and backlash throughout the country and the world. It still does, since author Herbert Ehrman has labeled it, “The Case That Will Not Die.”

While the Simpson verdict is often challenged, no one questioned whether the NFL Hall of Famer got a fair trial, possibly due to reforms of the judicial system sparked by the blatant errors in the trial of the two Italian immigrants, Sacco and Vanzetti.

“Watch and see what I do to anarchists,” the judge was quoted as saying while overseeing the Sacco-Vanzetti case.

In the 1970s, one juror, then 91 years old, justified his vote for the guilty verdict by declaring “They were Communists.”

With no concrete evidence at the time, Sacco and Vanzetti were tied to bombings and the country’s upheaval. In May 1920, they were found guilty in Dedham Court of the murders of a company paymaster and guard during a robbery at a Braintree shoe factory.

Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death. After the verdict, the judge’s home was attacked, as were the homes of jurors.

During the discussion period, Milton’s Frank Desmond, a former School Committee member, noted that a juror’s home on Pleasant Street in Milton was also bombed.

Despite a confession from another man, two appeals to a single Supreme Court judge failed, the governor declined a pardon and Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in Charlestown in 1927. The $15,000 stolen from the paymaster was never found.

In 1961, a new review identified Sacco’s gun as the murder weapon but questions arose as to chain of custody and a switch to the barrel of the gun.

Even today, the convictions of Sacco and Vanzetti for murder during troubling times echo throughout the United States and the world, according to Dukakis, Agnes, other judges, writers, and many others.

Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrants who barely spoke English, which was a major factor in their treatment, according to reports.

During the Fuller Village meeting, Dukakis outlined his background and how he was born in 1933 as the son of Turkish and Greek immigrants. He recalled being grilled by federal agents for his social work in the 1950s.

Speaking of immigrants, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee said, “That’s what’s so special about this country.”

Dukakis compared the current division and chaos across the country to historic patterns. He outlined the dismal treatment of Irish immigrants, Germans as aliens, and the internment of thousands of Japanese citizens.

“Now it’s Mexican immigrants,” said Dukakis, who noted that “half the CEOs in this country are immigrants” and 250,000 Chinese immigrants contribute to the country.

He also cited many of today’s other problems, such as unrest and violence that mirror those of a century ago.

During the two-hour discussion, Dukakis and Agnes reviewed the positive impact of the Sacco and Vanzetti case on the country’s legal system, including improvements to the Supreme Court, multiple reviews of capital cases, detailed instructions for judges, and even as late as 1966, the establishment of the Miranda rights.

“They became a symbol of manipulation of the judicial system,” Agnes said of the judicial errors.

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