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Sacco-Vanzetti frenzy has current parallels

Sacco-Vanzetti frenzy has current parallels

Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) - Vito Bruno remembers his father and thousands of others marching through Boston's North End 75 years ago to protest the executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

The Italian immigrants were put to death in 1927 after they were convicted of killing two people during a robbery. Many observers - then and now - say the trial focused unfairly on their anarchist political beliefs and status as immigrants

"They were being targeted because they were Italian," said Bruno, 85, who lived just a few blocks from the funeral parlor where the bodies of Sacco and Vanzetti were kept. "I was too young to realize then. But now I understand what a wrong thing that was."

With Friday's anniversary of the executions, the case raises questions about capital punishment, ethnic profiling and the treatment of immigrants that are relevant today.

"America was going through a very similar period then in the early '20s as it is now - unrest, fear, sense of insecurity, fear of foreigners," said Robert D'Attilio, the Web site director for the Sacco-Vanzetti Project, which makes artifacts of the case available to the public.

The case stems from the April 1920 slayings of a paymaster and guard who were gunned down during a $16,000 heist in suburban Braintree. Sacco, a shoemaker, and Vanzetti, a fish peddler, were arrested shortly afterward as they went to pick up a car authorities linked to the crime.

Vanzetti had a prior conviction for attempted robbery, but many believe the two were as good as dead before the trial began.

The crime came at the height of Italian immigration and against a backdrop of other atrocities committed by anarchists, including a 1920 New York bombing that killed 40 people near Wall Street.

Sacco and Vanzetti were held until September before being charged with the killings.

According to some accounts, eyewitnesses were brought to jail, where Sacco and Vanzetti were made to assume poses aping the movements the killers were seen to make. After the verdict, Judge Webster Thayer was quoted as saying, "Did you see what I did with those anarchist bastards the other day?"

Sacco and Vanzetti spent seven years on death row as supporters made their case an international cause celebre. Despite evidence of perjury by prosecution witnesses and murder confessions from other men after the trial, they were electrocuted on Aug. 23, 1927.

Half a century later, former Gov. Michael Dukakis took the unprecedented step of proclaiming that the men did not receive a fair trial.

Mary Anne Trasciatti, a rhetoric professor at New York's Hofstra University and a Sacco and Vanzetti expert, said there are many modern parallels to the case.

"The idea that the death penalty is used against minorities, against people of color, still exists - an enduring form of racism and xenophobia," she said. "The minorities here are no longer Italians, but now Arab Americans, African Americans, Hispanics - whoever happens to be perceived as the 'other.' "

To commemorate the anniversary, the Boston Public Library will host an exhibit beginning Sept. 30 of crime scene photographs, newly edited footage of the funeral and handwritten letters from the two men.

"The impetus behind this is not strictly historical, but to present the materials from the case and from the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti, so people can make up their own minds," said D'Attilio, who is coordinating the exhibit. "We want to present the facts associated with this case."

Filmmaker David Rothauser, who is producing a feature based on Vanzetti's diary, said the story holds a very real significance today.

"They were discriminated against because they were immigrants, they were radicals, people perceived them to be terrorists," he said. "All these things are what people are facing today."On the Net www.saccovanzettiproject.org

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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