Vanzetti's Plymouth Trial
Vanzetti's trial for the 24 December Bridgewater holdup was in many ways a dress rehearsal for the more important trial for the South Braintree murders. The prosecution's strategy was almost identical. Represented by J. P. Vahey and J. M. Graham, two well-known criminal lawyers, Vanzetti went to trial before Judge Thayer on 23 June 1920. Assistant District Attorney William Kane presented the case for the prosecution; Katzmann cross-examined the defense witnesses and made the closing argument. Evidence against Vanzetti included identifications by several eyewitnesses; a shotgun shell found upon him at the time of his arrest which, it was argued, matched one found at the scene of the crime; and some evidence of what Judge Thayer called "consciousness of guilt" at the time of his arrest. The prosecution contended that Boda, whom they had never been able to find, had also participated in the robbery. In reply the defense produced about a dozen witnesses, all Italians or Italian-Americans, who swore to having seen the fish peddler Vanzetti delivering eels in Plymouth on 24 December, a day on which Italians traditionally eat eels. To the surprise of courtroom observers, Vanzetti did not take the stand. 1 The jury found Vanzetti guilty of both assault with intent to murder and assault with intent to rob. Judge Thayer eventually sentenced him to twelve to fifteen years in prison.
Recent studies of the general reliability of eyewitness testimony have shown beyond any doubt that witnesses' recollections of events—and particularly of traumatic, stressful events—are highly unreliable, especially after the passage of weeks or months. Identifying previously unknown individuals is beyond the capability of most eyewitnesses. People have particular difficulty identifying people of a different race, and the ways in which many witnesses referred to Italians and other foreigners during testimony in the trials of Sacco and Vanzetti show clearly that Yankees regarded immigrants as members of different racial groups. Experiments have also shown that subjects respond readily to the suggestions of interrogators seeking to tailor their testimony to fit a predetermined theory. 2 The reports of a brief investigation of the Bridgewater holdup attempt undertaken by Pinkerton detectives in December 1919 and January 1920 show how these phenomena operated in this particular case.