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Firearms Identification in the Sacco-Vanzetti Case I - Page 2 of 4

But the heart of the prosecution's case didn't involve the eyewitnesses, it had to do with the firearms experts who would testify that the fatal bullet number 3 had been fired from Sacco's 32-caliber automatic handgun.7 In terms of proof, compared to the firearms identification evidence, every other aspect of the Sacco-Vanzetti case was window dressing.

The state's first firearms witness was Captain William Proctor, the head of the Massachusetts State Police for twenty-three years. Although a professional police administrator, the Captain was more amateur than expert when it came to firearms identification. Proctor had just recently developed an interest in firearms identification as a way out of police work. The Sacco-Vanzetti case would give him an opportunity to make a name for himself in the new and developing field.

Captain Proctor testified that after firing fourteen test bullets from Sacco's gun into a box of oiled sawdust, he compared bullet number 3 with the test bullets. Proctor seemed a reluctant witness as he carefully explained that he was accustomed to testing revolvers by pushing the bullets through the barrel manually rather than actually test-firing the gun. Proctor told the jury that in all probability, the other five right-twist 32-caliber bullets, the two in the paymaster and the other three in the bodyguard, had been fired from a Savage brand automatic. When the assistant district attorney asked the Captain if he was sure of this, the white-haired Proctor replied, “I can be as certain of that as I can of anything.” When asked if bullet III had been fired from Sacco's Colt automatic, Proctor phrased his answer more carefully. “My opinion is,” he stated, “that it (bullet III) is consistent with being fired by that (Sacco's) pistol.” (Italics mine)

As for the four empty cartridge cases picked up at the scene of the murder, Proctor testified that the Winchester shell had been fired in one gun and the other three in another. He had compared the firing pin mark on the Winchester shell with the impressions on the cases test-fired in Sacco's gun and again somewhat tentatively concluded that the Winchester shell casing was “consistent with” being fired out of Sacco's gun. Again his testimony was far from positive.

The second firearms expert testifying for the prosecution was Charles Van Amburgh. Van Amburgh had worked nine years at the Springfield Arsenal and later in the factories of Colt and Westinghouse. At the time of the trial he was employed as a technician for the Remington Union Metallic Cartridge Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In William Proctor's presence, Van Amburgh had test-fired Sacco's gun. He agreed with proctor's conclusions but was also wish-washy. In his testimony he said, “I am inclined to believe that number III bullet was fired . . . from this automatic Colt pistol.” Van Amburgh went on to say that there was a rough rust track at the bottom of the pistol barrel, and that corresponding marks could be traced on the bullet. Under cross-examination he admitted that it was common for Colts to rust at that particular place. Van Amburgh, like Proctor, believed that they had been fired from the same weapon.

To counter this testimony, the defense produced two firearms experts of their own. The first was James Burns. Burns had worked thirty-two years as a technician for the U.S. Cartridge Company. He too had fired comparison bullets from Sacco's gun. bullet III had a milled groove around it (a cannelure) that had been discontinued in more recent 32-caliber Winchester bullets. Burns had been unable to find any of the older type bullets, so he test fired bullets that most closely resembled the obsolete type. When Burns took the stand he testified that bullet number 3 could have been fired from a Colt automatic but felt that it could also have been fired from a Bayard, a foreign brand handgun. Burns had concluded that regardless of what gun bullet III had been fired from, the weapon’s rifling had been fouled and corroded. As far as he was concerned, the other bullets could have been fired from a Savage, Steyr, or a Walther. Burns showed the jury six of the eight bullets he had fired through Sacco's gun (he had lost two) and pointed out the regular and clean grooves the barrel had made on the bullets. Since bullet III had not been marked with regular, clean grooves, Burns had drawn the conclusion that Sacco’s gun had not fired the fatal bullet.

Of the four experts who had testified, only the prosecution's witness Van Amburgh had any knowledge or experience with the microscope and microphotography. And none of the four experts had considerable experience comparing known and questioned bullets to determine if they had been fired by the same weapon.

In 1921, the true science of firearms identification was just being developed by a handful of men in New York City. Unfortunately, none of these pioneers were as yet involved with the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Except for Van Amburgh, none of the firearms witnesses had any business calling themselves experts. The criminalistics part of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, thus far, was nothing more than an elaborate smoke screen. The prosecution's experts had at least been professional enough to qualify their conclusions.

When he was arrested, Vanzetti was carrying a 38-caliber Harrington & Richardson revolver. There had been no 38-caliber bullets found at the scene, but the murdered bodyguard’s missing gun was a 38-caliber Harrington & Richardson. The prosecution tried to prove that the gun in Vanzetti's possession was the victim's.

The guard had taken his gun in for repair a few days before he was killed, and the gunsmith who had worked on it told the jury he had installed a new firing pin. The gunsmith was unable, however, to positively identify the weapon in Vanzetti's possession as the gun owned by the bodyguard. According to the gunsmith, the gun Vanzetti possessed did have a new firing pin. The defense firearms experts testified that the firing pin in Vanzetti's revolver was not new. Moreover, the defense tried to show that at the time of the murders, the guard was unarmed. The guard was unarmed because he hadn't picked up his gun from the repair shop. When his widow had viewed his body at the funeral home, she supposedly had lamented: “Oh dear, if he had taken my advice and taken the revolver out of the shop he would not be, maybe he would not be in the same condition he is today.”8 The defense also pointed out that it was absurd to believe that a murderer would carry around with him a revolver belonging to the man he had shot, the possession of which would automatically connect him with the crime.

Finding itself in the absurd position of choosing between two sets of incompetent experts, the jury retired to deliberate. The firearms evidence must have played a vital role in their deliberations, because a short time later they asked for a magnifying glass so they could compare bullet III with the test bullets.

On July 14, 1921, the jury arrived at their decision – they had found both men guilty of first-degree murder. The jury had been given conflicting scientific testimony, dubious eyewitnesses, and weak circumstantial evidence, yet they had managed to find enough evidence to conclude that the defendants were guilty. It was obvious they had been favorably impressed with the two prosecution firearms experts and persuaded that the bullets in the bodyguard’s body had been fired from Sacco's Colt automatic. Vanzetti, on the other hand, had been convicted on almost nothing. The jury must have felt that no one could be so unlucky as to have on his person at the time of his arrest the same type and caliber of gun that had been possessed by the murdered man. The jury had not believed Vanzetti's account of how he had acquired the gun, and had totally disregarded all of the alibi evidence produced by the defense. Even though both men were Italian-American radicals, it is curious that not one of the twelve jurors, particularly with regard to Vanzetti, had a reasonable doubt as to their guilt.9

Millions of people all over the world took exception to the verdict, protesting that Sacco and Vanzetti had become victims of capitalistic class justice. An anarchist defense committee was immediately set up to finance the legal battle to obtain a new trial. Judge Webster Thayer and the jurors were called biased puppets of the capitalistic state and continually harassed by angry, overzealous Sacco-Vanzetti supporters.

7. For accounts of the Sacco-Vanzetti case making strong arguments that the fatal bullet number 3 had been fired from Sacco's gun, see: Robinson, Henry Morton, Science Catches the Criminal, (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1935), pp 82-6; Montgomery, Robert H., Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder and the Myth, (NY: The Devin-Adair Co., 1960); and Russell, Francis, Tragedy at Dedham, (NY: McGraw Hill, 1962).
8. Musmanno, Michael A., Verdict! My Life in Court, (NY: Macfadden Books, 1963), p 251.
9. The most comprehensive account of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, including the trial and the testimony of the firearms witnesses, is a book entitled, The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti by G. Louis Joughin and Edmund M. Morgan, (NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1948). The book contains many lengthy excerpts of trial testimony. The authors present all of the evidence in a fair, well-balances way and do not make a judgment as to the defendants' guilt or innocence. The purpose of the book is to show that in the Sacco-Vanzetti case justice was denied. The authors also conclude that Judge Thayer was prejudiced against the defendants and that the defense did not aggressively and effectively challenge the prosecution's firearms evidence. For an argument that the trial was fair, see: Montgomery, Robert H., Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder and the Myth, (NY: The Devin-Adair Co., 1960). See also: Ehrmann, Herbert B., The Untried Case: The Sacco-Vanzetti Case and the Morelli Gang, (NY: The Vanguard Press, 1933). This book is based on the hypothesis that the murder/robbery was committed by the Morelli gang of Providence, Rhode Island.

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com