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Firearms Identification in the Sacco-Vanzetti Case II - Page 2 of 3

Goddard first compared the four empty cartridges found at the scene with a test shell that had been fired in Sacco's gun. He concluded that the third crime scene shell he examined was identical in its markings to the test cartridge. Goddard was certain that the two shells had been fired in the same weapon. The firing-pin imprints were exactly alike, and the markings made by the breech-lock were identical.

Goddard then examined the four bullets from the body of the murdered guard. The comparison microscope revealed beyond question that the fatal bullet number III had been fired from Sacco's gun. The rifling grooves were the same depth, width and rate of pitch. In addition, there appeared tiny longitudinal scratches that matched perfectly. Rotating the bullets, Goddard lined up and compared each groove. He then invited the defense expert to look into the microscope. Augustus Gill agreed, “That bullet,” he said, referring to the fatal bullet number III, “Could not have come from any other gun.”

Augustus Gill had no choice but to inform the defense attorney that he was changing his opinion. His 1923 testimony had been in error. When James Burns, the defense expert who had testified in the 1921 trial, had the opportunity to examine the bullets through Goddard's microscope, he too changed his opinion.

A report containing Goddard's test results was sent to the Lowell Committee. On August 3, 1927, Governor Fuller, on the strength of the Lowell Committee's findings, refused to commute the sentences of Sacco and Vanzetti. There is no question that Goddard's findings greatly influenced the committee and the governor.

Goddard also wrote a letter to Governor Fuller setting out his findings. This letter, printed in the August 8, 1927 edition of the Boston Evening Transcript, explains the function and workings of Goddard’s comparison microscope:

The instrument in question is nothing more than a highly perfected form of comparison microscope, employing optical principals long known. The model used was, however, especially designed for investigations upon bullets and shells and to the best of my knowledge none other equally well adapted to this purpose has been constructed. Its function is to fuse into a single one, the images of two bullets or shells, so that, in case they bear identical markings, the composite picture produced will reveal, after the identical markings have been located and brought into approximation, what appears to be a single object rather than the fusion of two objects. Unless two bullets have passed through the same barrel, they can never be so fused as to present the appearance of a single bullet, the picture always revealing marked differences in its two halves. This holds true also for shells which have or have not been fired in the same arm. . . .7

After Goddard had filed his report and written his letter, he mentioned, in a discussion with one of the defense attorneys, that before making his tests he had already formed the opinion, from looking at Van Amburgh's photographs, that Sacco's gun had fired bullet III. Goddard also expressed a low opinion of Dr. Hamilton but was embarrassed when the attorney produced a letter Goddard had written to Hamilton in 1924 asking his advice about starting a career in firearms identification. Goddard could only reply that in 1924 he didn't know about Hamilton and his reputation. Goddard had probably heard, for the first time, about Hamilton's exploits and fiascos in 1925 from Charles Waite when Goddard joined the Bureau of Forensic Ballistics. At any rate, the discussion ended with the defense attorney angrily defending Hamilton as a man of honor and first-class firearms expert.

On August 23, 1927, more than six years after the murder/robbery in South Braintree, the two embattled radicals died in the electric chair at the Charlestown State Prison.8 Following their death, millions of demonstrators in dozens of major American and European cities took to the streets in protest.9 The largest demonstrations were in Boston, New York City, and Paris. Among the protestors were several famous writers, artists, and intellectuals, many of whom were arrested when they attempted to stage a public rally or refused to disperse.

Several years after the executions, the Sacco-Vanzetti affair was still controversial. For example, five years after their deaths, bombs were still being thrown at the home of Judge Webster Thayer whose death in May, 1933 came twelve years after the famous trial.10 As evidenced by the books and articles still being written about the case, interest in Sacco and Vanzetti is still alive.11 In 1977 Sacco and Vanzetti had their names cleared in a special proclamation by the governor of Massachusetts.

One of those who believed strongly in Sacco's and Vanzetti's innocence was the Boston writer, Francis Russell. In 1962 Russell published a book about the case called, Tragedy in Dedham.12 (Excerpts and materials from Russell's book have been cited previously in this chapter.) While researching the book, Russell asked Jac Weller, a firearms consultant and honorary curator of the West Point Museum, and Lieutenant-Colonel Frank W. Jury (U.S.A. retired), formerly in charge of the firearms identification laboratory of the New Jersey State Police, to examine the firearms evidence in the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Russell wanted two modern firearms experts, using modern crime laboratory equipment and techniques, to test out Calvin Goddard's thirty-four-year-old findings.

In October of 1961, the two experts test-fired Sacco's Colt automatic. When Weller and Jury compared the test bullets with the fatal bullet number 3, both experts agreed that Calvin Goddard had been correct in his conclusion that one of the four bullets taken from the body of the payroll guard Berardelli, the bullet that had been marked III, had been fired from Sacco's Colt automatic.13 With these new test results in front of him, Russell, like Augustus Gill and James Burns before him, became much less convinced of Sacco's innocence.

7. This letter has been reprinted in its entirety in: Montgomery, Robert H., Sacco-Vanzetti: The Murder and the Myth, (NY: The Devin-Adair Co., 1960) pp 105-6.
8. For a complete record of the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and related proceedings, see: Transcript of the Record of the Trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in the Courts of Massachusetts and Subsequent Proceedings 1920-1927, 6 Vols, NY: Henry Holt & Co., 1928. The record consists of two and one-half million words. See also: Commonwealth vs. Sacco, 255 Mass. 369, 151 N.E. 839 (1926)
9. Petitions for clemency had poured in from such people as Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, William O. Douglas, Fiorello H. LaGuardia, Heywood Broun, Albert Einstein, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser as well as from hundreds of others in the world of the arts, the academic community, the legal profession, and politics.
10. The following notice appeared in the May 1, 1933 issue of Time Magazine: “Died. Webster Thayer, 75, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge; of a cerebral embolism; in Boston. As he lay dieing in Boston's University Club a policeman and his personal bodyguard who had attended him since the bombing of his Worchester, Mass home last autumn (Time, Oct. 3), stood guard outside to forestall any last outburst of violence which had threatened him since April 9, 1927, when he sentences Shoemaker Nicola Sacco and Fish Peddler Bartolomeo Vanzetti to death.”
11. Some of the more current works about the Sacco-Vanzetti case are: Ehrmann, Herbert B., The Case That Will Not Die: Commonwealth vs. Sacco and Vanzetti, (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1969) Ehrmann was the associate counsel for the Sacco-Vanzetti defense; Feuerlicht, R.S., Justice Crucified: The Story of Sacco and Vanzetti, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1977; Porter, K.A., “The Never-ending Wrong,” Atlantic Monthly, (June 1977) pp 38-64; and Quesado, Fernando, Sacco and Vanzetti, NY: Gordon, 1976.
12. Russell, Francis, Tragedy in Dedham, (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1962)
13. The results of the Weller-Jury tests are on pages 464-5 of Russell's book.

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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