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

Fred J. Cook, the author of the 1962 article, “Sacco-Vanzetti: The Missing Fingerprints . .,” wasn't impressed with Russell's book or his conclusion that Sacco's gun had fired the fatal bullet. Cook called Russell's book “a masterpiece of ambivalence.”14 Cook assets that Russell's conclusions contradict the evidence he presents in his own book.

Among other things, Cook challenges the validity of the 1961 tests by Weller and Jury on the grounds that the two firearms experts were already convinced that Sacco's gun had fired the mortal bullet. Cook points out that in 1957, Weller and Jury revised a classic firearms identification textbook first published in 1946 by Julian S. Hatcher.15 In the preface to the second edition, Weller and Jury pay tribute to Calvin Goddard and Charles Van Amburgh for their work in the Sacco-Vanzetti case. Moreover, the text itself contains comparison photographs showing that bullet III had been fired from Sacco's weapon. From this, Cook concludes that Weller and Jury were not impartial experts, thus casting doubt on the validity of their findings.16 Of course if one assumes that Weller and Jury are competent and honest scientists, any previous notions they had about Goddard, Van Amburgh, or the Sacco-Vanzetti case would have been put aside. It could be argued that Cook has made too much of the experts' respect for Goddard and his work.

Cook's skepticism would be shared, however, by those who would be quick to point out that when the Weller-Jury tests were made in 1961, bullet III was over forty years old. The gun itself had probably rusted and both the weapon and the bullet had been handled by many people over the years.

What Cook doesn't mention is that two other well-known and respected firearms identification experts, Jack D. and Charles O. Gunther, also reviewed the firearms evidence in the case several years after the trial but before Weller and Jury had taken up the task. Although they found the expert testimony of both sides of the 1921 trial worthless and misleading, they agreed with Goddard that one of the crime scene shell casings had been fired from Sacco's pistol. In 1935, the Gunthers published The Identification of Firearms from Ammunition Fired Therein which contains a composite photograph of the test shell and crime scene cartridge.17 The Gunthers’ opinion that the breechblock of Sacco's gun had made the marks on one of the crime scene shells is not contained in their textbook. The opinion was, however, expressed in a letter to Edmund M. Morgan, one of the authors of the 1948 book on the case, The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti.18

In his article, Cook also noted that although numerous latent fingerprints had been lifted from the get-a-way car, the police never confronted Sacco and Vanzetti with fingerprint evidence connecting them to the crime. From this Cook concludes the neither Sacco or Vanzetti's were on the car, this being, in his mind, further evidence of their innocence. Cook writes:

Certainly, if Sacco's and Vanzetti's prints had been obtained from the murder car, the fingerprint evidence would have become the major, irrefutable item in the state's arsenal of proof. Obviously, Sacco's and Vanzetti's prints were not on the murder car. This is negative evidence, but logic does not stop here. There had been five men in the Buick. . . it is inconceivable that the fingerprints of some of those five would not have been shown.19

The absence of physical clues linking a person to the scene of the crime is not necessarily strong evidence that the person is innocent. This is particularly true with regard to latent fingerprints. It's always reasonable to suppose that a suspect wore gloves of that he carefully wiped off any objects he touched that might incriminate him. This principle would certainly apply to a vehicle used in connection with a double murder.

Cook's missing fingerprint analysis of the Sacco-Vanzetti case is considered by Professor James W. Osterburg in his book, The Crime Laboratory.20 Osterburg makes the point that when a person touches something, an identifiable latent is not automatically left on that object. The thing touched must have the kind of surface that will accept a print. If the object is held too tightly of released in the wrong way, the latent will be smudged and therefore useless. Moreover, if the crime scene investigator uses the wrong equipment or technique in treating the print, it will be lost. So, the fact that a person's prints are not on an object isn't proof that he didn't touch it.

The Sacco-Vanzetti case certainly brought public attention to the developing science of firearms identification. But because the outcome was so controversial and the firearms experts so divided and unqualified, the case cannot be considered a criminalistic masterpiece. In this regard, the history of firearms identification and scientific lie detection have something in common. In both fields the opportunity to apply the new science was taken before the practitioners were up to the task.

14. Cook, Fred J., “Sacco-Vanzetti: The Missing Fingerprints . .,” The Nation (December 22, 1962)
Cook, p442
15. Hatcher, Julian S., Firearms Investigation, Identification and Evidence, (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Co., 1946) Second Edition by Jac Weller and Frank W. Jury, 1957
16. Regarding Weller's and Jury's modern tests of the Sacco-Vanzetti firearms evidence, Cook state: “In the preface, they paid personal tribute to Colonel Goddard, 'who generously gave us the benefit of his unique experience,' and in the body of the text they also bestowed a bouquet upon Van Amburgh for work that 'was of great value to the cause of justice in the famous Sacco-Vanzetti case.' One section of the book, contributed by the Massachusetts State Police, contains comparison photographs of the bullets designed to show that the mortal slug came from Sacco's gun. The whole tenor of the text in this section is that the ballistics evidence in the Sacco-Vanzetti case was unimpeachable. What the sequence says clearly was that the two experts whom Russell selected to make the 1961 test were men already aligned in sympathies with the two most controversial state experts in the case, Van Amburgh and Goddard; they were men who had already accepted as final truth the police version of the case. In such circumstances, their impartiality has to be called into question.” (Cook, p 449)
17. Gunther, Jack D. and Charles O., The Identification of Firearms from Ammunition Fired Therein, (NY: John Wiley and Son, 1935). The composite photograph of the two shells is Figure 136 on page 114.
18. Joughin, G. Louis and Edmund M. Morgan, The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti, (NY: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1948) p 537.
19. Cook, page 451. Contemporary newspaper accounts of the investigation suggest that several difference sets of fingerprints had been obtained from the get-a-way car. The Brockton Times, on April 25, 1920, reported that Captain William Proctor and his detectives were hoping the fingerprint evidence would turn up some suspects. On May 6, the day after the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti, The Brockton Times reported that Inspector George C. Chase was making a comparison of the fingerprints of Sacco and Vanzetti with the latents lifted from the get-a-way car. The results of the comparisons, made by Eddie Sherlock, the Massachusetts state fingerprint expert, were never made public.
20. Osterburg, James W., The Crime Laboratory: Case Studies of Scientific Criminal Investigations, (Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press, 1968) p 25. As of 1982, the book is in its second edition.

Sacco-Vanzetti Case

  • Blumenfeld, Harold Sacco and Vanzetti NY: Scholastic Book Services, 1972
  • Busch, Francis X Prisoners at the Bar Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1952 (pp 51-141)
  • Dos Passos, John Facing the Chair NY: DeCapo Press, 1970
  • Cook, Fred J. “Sacco-Vanzetti: The Missing Fingerprints” Nation (December 22, 1962) pp442-457
  • Frankfurter, Felix The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti: A Critical Analysis for Lawyers And Laymen NY: Brown, Little & Co., 1961
  • Lyons, Eugene The Life and Death of Sacco and Vanzetti NY: International Publishing, 1927
  • Fraenkel, Osmund K. The Sacco-Vanzetti Case London: Routledge, 1931
  • Thorwald, Jurgen The Century of the Detective NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965 (pp435-447)
  • Loth, David Crime Lab: Science Turns Detective NY: Julian Messner, Inc., 1964 (pp 70-73)
  • Russell, Francis Tragedy at Dedham, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1962
  • Smyth, Frank Cause of Death: The Story of Forensic Science NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1980 (pp 92-94)
  • Joughin, Louis and Edmund M. Morgan The Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti NY: Harcourt Brace, 1948
  • Ehrmann, Herbert B. The Untried Case: The Sacco-Vanzetti Case and the Morelli Gang Vanguard Press, 1933
  • Felix, David Protest: Sacco-Vanzetti and the Intellectuals Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965
  • Musmanno, Michael A. After Twelve Years NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1939
  • Musmanno, Michael A. “Was Sacco Guilty?” New Republic (March 2, 1963) pp 25-30
  • Frankfurter, Marion D. and Gardner Jackson The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti NY: The Viking Press, 1928

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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