Courtroom drama has captured the imagination of the American public--from the witchcraft trials of the late seventeenth century to the twentieth-century struggles over presidential impeachment. Each of these trials dominated contemporary public attention, each stirred controversy and debate, and each featured a dramatic episode with the courtroom at center stage. In one sense, these famous trials have little in common. They took place in a variety of venues, from the religious, to state and federal courts, or within the political arena. But despite their differences, all these trials reveal something about our values as a society, what we wish to punish, how our judicial system functions, and what is considered a "fair" trial. Following are cases whose notoriety has been lasting, not momentary as with Media Sensations (see Chapter 7), but also not constitutionally important, as with Landmark Cases (see Chapter 6.) The cases presented here, rather, focus on, and are grouped according to vital issues that occupy American legal thought: race and prejudice, politics, labor, and radicalism.
Race & Prejudice
The Salem Witch Trials
In 1692, in the small town of Salem, Massachusetts, a conflict evolved into one of the most notorious witch-hunts in history, and ended with the hanging of nineteen people. The trouble in Salem began when young girls claimed that witches had tortured them and cast spells upon them. The girls captured the town's attention by twitching, yelping, and shouting, and then provided names of those responsible, eventually accusing dozens of local women.
The hearings of three of the accused witches were set to begin in March 1692. The prosecuting counsel based his case on the Biblical statement, "Thou shalt not permit a witch to live." The prosecutors learned from contemporary scholars that witches' bodies bore a "devil's mark," which could be any suspicious mark or lump. Also, if a person's "shape" was seen harming another person, it indicated guilt, the townspeople believing that the devil could not acquire an innocent person's "shape." After the hearings in Salem, all three women were sent to Boston for trial, where they were convicted without a defense. The trials then spurred a rash of accusations during the summer of 1692, and resulted in hundreds of people being imprisoned.
Scholars have proposed several theories to explain the witch-hunts of Salem. Some historians suggest that the adolescent accusers fabricated their stories because they relished being the center of attention and enjoyed the life-or-death power they gained from making such claims. During a time when young women lived under male authority from both fathers and ministers, the chance to speak in public and cause such a sensation was captivating indeed. Historians have also analyzed the patterns of accusation and concluded that the women who were branded "witches" were generally middle-aged, and were vulnerable targets because of peculiarities like pipe-smoking or muttering to themselves. Others have interpreted the episode as a local class dispute.
In late August 1839, the schooner Amistad dropped anchor off the coast of Connecticut. A group of hungry, thirsty men in tattered clothing went ashore to seek food, water, and information. Although they did not speak English, they did communicate through pantomime to inform the spectators they were from Africa and needed some help to sail home. However, communication broke off the next morning when a U.S. Navy brig, commanded by Lieutenant Thomas Gedney, sailed into view. Gedney suspected the Amistad was engaged in piracy or smuggling, so he boarded the ship and discovered a group of armed black men and three Cuban prisoners. A Cuban named Ruiz told a story of mutiny and mayhem that riveted the nation's attention.
Ruiz related that the Amistad had departed Havana on June 28, but its cargo of slaves, produce, and textiles never reached its destination on Cuba's north coast due to a violent slave rebellion. He told how fifty-three black men on board managed to free themselves from their chains, and using knives found in the hold, killed the captain and took command of the ship. In his story, Ruiz neglected to mention that the slaves were recently brought from Africa, because although slavery was legal at the time, importing slaves had been banned by America in 1808, and by Spain and Britain in 1817.
The slaves who seized command of the Amistad, led by a young man called Cinque, forced the Cubans to sail toward Africa. The Cubans, fearing for their lives, tricked the Africans and attempted to sail toward the southern United States, where they believed the Africans would be recaptured. However, due to weather and problems with navigation, the Amistad landed near Connecticut, bringing with it a host of legal and ethical questions concerning the status of the rebellious slaves.
The Africans were arrested on charges of murder and piracy, and were held in the county jail in New Haven, Connecticut. As public interest grew and thousands of people filed through the jail each day to stare at the Africans, interested parties began to debate their fate. Abolitionists, or those who favored the end of slavery, seized upon the Amistad incident as a way to garner public sympathy for their cause. The Spanish government also entered the debate, arguing that since the Africans were Spanish property, the ship and the Africans should be returned to Cuba to undergo trial there. The Cubans who survived the rebellion filed claims asserting the Africans were their property. Similarly, Lieutenant Gedney maintained that he was due one-third of the value of the Amistad as salvage.
In September, the trial began in a U.S. circuit court in Hartford, presided over by Judge Smith Thompson, also an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. Thompson quickly disposed of the issue, ruling that the United States did not have jurisdiction over the murder and piracy charges because the offenses occurred in a Spanish ship sailing in Spanish waters. After that ruling, following the accepted procedure of the time, the property issues would be decided in a district court, under Judge Andrew Judson.
The key to resolving the question of whether the Amistad Africans were anyone's property was to examine whether they were recently imported from Africa, which would mean they were illegally traded. In order to argue for that position, the abolitionists finally found a translator who could help the Africans communicate. The story the Africans told was a horrific tale of the transatlantic slave trade. Although President Van Buren pressured the judge to rule in Spain's favor, Judson ruled that the Amistad Africans were "born free and ever since have been and still of right are free and not slaves." The United States attorney filed an immediate appeal, and the case of the Amistad was destined for the United States Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court began to hear the case in February 1841, with former president John Quincy Adams vigorously defending the Africans. He criticized the Van Buren administration for acting as Spain's agent, and argued that to return the Africans to Cuba would serve to satisfy the vengeance of blood-thirsty slave traders. When the Court returned its verdict, with one dissent, they ruled that the Africans had been kidnapped, illegally transported, and had mutinied in self-defense. They were free men, and all chose to return to Africa.
Although this decision freed the Amistad Africans, it did not set any precedent that would be relevant to the millions of American slaves. In fact, the Dred Scott ruling would follow sixteen years later and establish that American slaves were indeed property. The Amistad ruling did, however, attract national attention to the pain and misery of slavery, while lending respectability to the cause of abolitionism.
John Brown's Raid
Events like those surrounding the Amistad mutiny caused Americans to question the continuing existence of slavery. John Brown, a strict abolitionist, felt passionately and violently that he must personally fight to end slavery. He settled in Kansas in 1855 to help win the territory's admission to the Union as a free state, and believed that slavery would end only through the use of violence. In the late 1850s, Brown hatched a radical plan to abolish slavery by gathering arms and invading the southern United States, freeing slaves along the way. Brown hoped to create a stronghold in the Blue Ridge Mountains that would function as a sanctuary for freed slaves. The first step in Brown's plan was to launch his army by seizing arms from the federal arsenal in Harper's Ferry, Virginia.
Brown began his raid in the middle of the night of October 16, 1859, but by dawn, people from the surrounding area had joined the battle. After a day and night of intense fighting, Brown peered from the engine house where he had barricaded himself and his men to see a detachment of U.S. Marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee. The Marines stormed Brown's fortress and overwhelmed the men inside, seriously wounding Brown in the process. John Brown's raid lasted only thirty-six hours, but it claimed seventeen lives.
Brown and his men were tried within a week of capture on charges of conspiracy to cause insurrection, murder, and treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia. Eighty armed men were needed to guard the prisoners as they were escorted to trial. Brown protested the trial in the first place, arguing that not only did his wounds make a trial impossible for him, he also believed that the entire proceedings were a sham, evidenced by the fact that his appointed defense counsel were two proslavery lawyers from Virginia. But the trial went forward. A jury of twelve slave owners was selected, with no objections from Brown's lawyers.
The plea was not guilty to all charges, and Brown's lawyers argued that Brown should be tried in a federal court, since the planning for the raid occurred in other states and the armory was under federal jurisdiction. The prosecution did not answer these points, but instead focused on re-telling the events of the raid, relying on the dramatic testimony of witnesses. No defense witnesses appeared, even after being subpoenaed, yet the judge refused to grant Brown's plea for a delay.
The jury deliberated less than an hour before finding Brown guilty on all charges. Before sentencing, Brown proclaimed that had a clean conscience, and that he considered himself "chosen by God to free men." Sentenced to hang on December 2, 1859, Brown wrote on the day of his execution, "[T]he crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood." These final words would prove to be prophetic, as the United States was plunged into and torn apart by the Civil War only sixteen months later.
The Scottsboro Nine
Although the Civil War would forever emancipate the slaves, issues of racial equality would continue to be debated in the American legal system. In fact, more than sixty years later, in the 1930s, the issues that polarized the nation during John Brown's trial remained unresolved and surfaced again in another trial, held in Scottsboro, Alabama, where the so-called Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine African-American men, had to fight for their lives in a justice system entirely controlled by white Southerners.
During the height of the Great Depression, the "Scottsboro Boys" were riding the rails in search of a job. When their train pulled into Paint Rock, Alabama, a group of sheriff's deputies swept through and yanked everyone out of the boxcars, including nine African-American men and two white women named Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, who then accused the black men of rape.
The first trials began less than two weeks later, and are generally regarded as a farce, since the un-paid defense attorneys were ill-prepared and offered a weak cross-examination and closing arguments. The prosecutor grimly summed up one case by appealing to the jury, "Guilty or not guilty, let's get rid of these niggers." Not surprisingly, eight of the nine were sentenced to die, with thirteen-year-old Roy Wright receiving life in prison because of his young age.
This trial attracted attention when the International Labor Defense (ILD), a wing of the Communist Party, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) jockeyed for the right to represent the Scottsboro Nine in their appeal. The attorneys compromised and submitted a joint appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, arguing that the trial had been hasty and unfair. The state court, however, upheld the convictions. But, in 1932, the United States Supreme Court 7-2 decision in Powell v. Alabama overturned the verdict on the grounds that the Scottsboro boys had not enjoyed their Sixth Amendment right to adequate legal counsel in a capital crime.
The Scottsboro Nine would face another trial, but this time it would be held in Decatur in the hope that a change in venue would produce a different result. This time they were represented by Samuel Leibowitz, a highly regarded New York criminal defense attorney hired by the ILD. Excitement built as Leibowitz gave a vigorous defense, concluding with a surprise appearance by Ruby Bates, who admitted she had lied, and that no rape had occurred. Attempting to discredit the defense witnesses by insinuating they had been misled by Northerners, the county prosecutor roared at the jury, "Show them that Alabama justice cannot be bought and sold with Jew money from New York." The trial of the first defendant ended in another death sentence. Judge Edwin Horton, who had become convinced that the Scottsboro Nine were innocent, set aside the verdict and ordered yet another new trial. Public interest remained high, as rallies were held in northern states and three thousand people protested in front of the White House.
After two cases were transferred to a juvenile court, seven of the Scottsboro Boys stood trial again in late 1934, this time before a judge who was not sympathetic to the defense, resulting in yet another death sentence. In appealing this case to the Alabama Supreme Court, Leibowitz attempted to demonstrate that African-Americans had been systematically excluded from juries. The court denied this appeal, suggesting that failure to seat African-Americans on juries was not a sign of bias, merely an unintended consequence of Alabama's desire to fill juries with "men of intelligence, character, and sound judgment."
The United States Supreme Court did not agree. Leibowitz was able to show that no African-American had served on a jury in Decatur, Alabama, for more than sixty years. In Norris v. Alabama and Patterson v. Alabama, the Court reversed convictions on the grounds that African-Americans had been excluded from the jury. Yet another group of trials was held in 1936 and 1937, which resulted in guilty verdicts for Haywood Patterson, Clarence Norris, Charlie Weems, Ozie Powell, and Andy Wright.
New appeals were filed, but more importantly, behind-the-scenes negotiations in 1937 resulted in charges against four of the defendants--Olen Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Eugene Williams, and Roy Wright--being dropped. People in Alabama were beginning to tire of the incessant negative publicity they were receiving over these cases. Six years later, Weems and Norris were paroled, Powell was released in 1946, and Patterson escaped in 1948. And in 1960, after serving more than nineteen years in prison for a crime he did not commit, the last Scottsboro defendant, Andy Wright, was released. It was not until 1976 that the state of Alabama granted Clarence Norris, the only remaining living "Scottsboro Boy," a full pardon.
Although these Supreme Court decisions did not prevent the Scottsboro defendants from serving time in prison, the decisions stimulated closer federal scrutiny of state practices. Unfortunately, they also signaled the persistence of radical discrimination and de jure segregation throughout the South. Not until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s would these racial hierarchies begin to change.
The Assassination of Medgar Evers
Medgar Evers was a leader in the civil rights movement in Mississippi until he was shot in the back while standing in his own driveway, just after midnight in June of 1963. The murder weapon, a 1918 vintage rifle, was recovered along with a clear fingerprint and the fatal bullet. The FBI agent who conducted the investigation linked the rifle and fingerprint to a former U.S. Marine, Byron De La Beckwith. Thirty years after an all-white jury decided the Scottsboro cases, an all-white jury took up the case of the man who assassinated Medgar Evers.
Although the amount of physical evidence was overwhelming, the prosecution faced a jury unsympathetic to the civil rights movement, including the prosecutor himself, who told the jury, "Evers was engaged in things that were contrary to what you and I believe in." The defense capitalized on such sentiment, and a deadlocked jury was the result, 7 to 5 for acquittal. The second trial produced another deadlock, this time four out of eight jurors favoring acquittal. Beckwith was released, and his hometown of Greenwood, Mississippi, celebrated by appointing him an auxiliary policeman with the authority to patrol black neighborhoods while carrying a gun.
Twenty-five years later, Evers's murder again attracted national attention. In the fall of 1989, the Clarion Ledger published secret documents from the Sovereignty Commission, a Mississippi state-funded agency that had intimidated and harassed civil rights workers from 1956 to 1973. Although the files were supposed to be sealed, documents were leaked demonstrating that the commission had worked for Beckwith's defense. Times had changed since Beckwith's first trial, and outraged people in Mississippi called for a new trial.
Beckwith, who was sixty-nine years old, faced a more vigorous prosecutor named Bobby DeLaughter in his 1990 trial. Although the transcripts from the original trials were "missing" from official records, Evers's widow had kept copies. The prosecutor worked to generate new evidence of Beckwith's guilt. For example, he located a 1990 Ku Klux Klan publication in which Beckwith boasted, "Killing that nigger gave me no more inner discomfort than our wives endure when they give birth to our children."
Beckwith's lawyers tried to prevent the trial from happening at all. They argued that Beckwith's right to a speedy trial had been violated by the long delay. Even though evidence like the bullet was missing, and many witnesses had since died, the Mississippi Supreme Court allowed the case to go forward, and their decision was upheld by the United States Supreme Court.
The jury selected for the 1990 trial looked little like the first jury; it contained eight African-Americans and four whites. Though many of the witnesses were elderly, their evidence was as powerful as it had been thirty years earlier. The case against Beckwith was sealed when a guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary testified that while Beckwith was serving time for another crime, Beckwith told him that it was only his personal connections that prevented him from being imprisoned for "getting rid of that nigger Evers." The jury deliberated for five hours before returning a verdict of guilty, and Beckwith was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.
The Evers case, which spanned twenty-seven years, shows that although justice has not always prevailed for African-Americans, Americans' views on racial justice have thankfully changed.
The Libel Trial of John Peter Zenger
Famous trials can also tell us something about American political values, particularly when one focuses attention on the improper conduct of prominent politicians. In the case of a poor and unknown printer in colonial New York, the issue would center around the press's right to publish information about politicians.
John Peter Zenger was arrested and imprisoned on the charge of printing libelous material about the colonial administration and the governor of New York, William Cosby. Zenger's arrest sparked a vigorous debate about the clash between a citizen's right to criticize his government, and the government's desire for public order and safety.
Zenger was drawn into the fray because he owned his own printing press, unusual in New York in 1735. He agreed to work with members of the opposition to Cosby's governorship, and he published articles, editorials, and letters critical of Cosby's corrupt behavior, which included nepotism, rigging elections, and tampering with the courts. Zenger published these unsigned writings under the heading of The New York Weekly Journal, Peter Zenger, Printer.
The Journal rapidly attained a wide circulation and contributed to the growth of the opposition movement. Governor Cosby ordered that copies of the paper be publicly burned, and city officials were commanded to witness the burning. No one showed up for the big event, and the papers were set ablaze in an empty street, which caused the incident to be dubbed "Cosby's Folly." In response, a furious Cosby decided to punish Zenger, the person responsible for printing the Journal.
Zenger's situation began to look grim when, on the first day of trial, the judge disbarred his attorneys and appointed Zenger a new defense counsel. The prevailing common law required only that the jury decide if Zenger had in fact printed the articles in question. The judge would then rule on whether the material violated libel laws, defined broadly at the time to include any printed comment casting disfavor on the government.
Soon after the trial got underway, those present were shocked to hear a voice from the back of the courtroom. Andrew Hamilton, an eminent Philadelphia attorney and a revered legal mind, rose and walked forward, announcing his intention to act as Zenger's attorney. Hamilton began by adopting a novel approach. Acknowledging that Zenger had published the alleged libels, he argued rather that Zenger had a right to print true statements about the government. Libelous statements were those that were purposefully false and seditious. The prosecution's case relied on the prevailing understanding that true statements could be libel if the judge perceived them to be.
The judge instructed the jury to rule only on the question of whether Zenger had published the statements, but after less than ten minutes of deliberation, the jury returned with a verdict of not guilty, apparently persuaded that libel should exclude the publication of truthful statements. New Yorkers celebrated the victory, and Zenger's published narrative of the trial became a guide used by those accused of censorship in future years. Moreover, Zenger's acquittal allowed citizens to criticize politicians and other elected officials without fear of reprisal, an important right incorporated into the First Ammendment.
The Impeachment of President Andrew Johnson
Political issues of a different sort were at stake during the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868. After President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Johnson assumed the presidency and began to face the daunting task of restoring order in a country torn apart by the Civil War. The Congress and President Johnson soon clashed over how to accomplish this task. Over Johnson's veto, Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867, which established military rule over the defeated southern states, and allowed Congress to implement their plans to ensure that African-American men could vote. Johnson, on the other hand, preferred to restore government in former Confederate states without disturbing Southern institutions. Johnson's plan placed former Confederates in positions of power and gave them the ability to thwart black voter registration.
During the same session in 1867, Congress attempted to limit Johnson's ability to undermine their Reconstruction plans by passing the Tenure of Office Act. This law required congressional approval before Johnson could remove any Senate-confirmed official holding a position in the federal government. In 1868, Johnson decided to formally challenge the constitutionality of this law, and he dismissed the secretary of war, who had been a Lincoln appointee.
The House of Representatives reacted by beginning the process of impeachment, that is, bringing formal charges of misconduct against a sitting president of the United States. The House overwhelmingly found Johnson guilty on eleven counts of misconduct, most stemming from his violation of the Tenure of Office Act. After the House impeached the president, the Senate, presided over by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, took up the trial proceedings, and in the end, was one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to remove the president from office. Although many agreed that Johnson had violated the law, moderates were reluctant to impeach over what they felt was a policy disagreement. Johnson remained in office, but was defeated politically, and Congress was able to direct Reconstruction without interference from the Oval Office.
The Watergate Hearings
Unlike President Johnson, Richard Nixon avoided impeachment only by resigning the office of the presidency after his illegal and corrupt activities were revealed. During Nixon's first term, his staff members began to use "dirty tricks," such as opening mail and tapping phones, to discover information that was used to embarrass, harass, and discredit Nixon's opponents. During the 1972 presidential election campaign, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, or CREEP, continued with the same tactics. In fact, five inept burglars hired by CREEP would make history when they broke into Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel and set in motion the downfall of a president.
Nixon, concerned that this "third-rate burglary attempt" would connect directly to CREEP, ordered the FBI to participate in a cover-up, supposedly due to reasons of national security. The burglars were convicted, but kept silent by White House pressure and $400,000 in hush money. Unfortunately for Nixon, however, the cover-up soon began to unravel as the judge pressured the burglars to talk, and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post continued to investigate. White House counsel John Dean warned Nixon that the cover-up had become a "cancer on the presidency." Soon thereafter, Nixon accepted the resignations of H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. Nixon also fired Dean.
Attention shifted to the hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities. Millions of Americans watched on television as John Dean implicated Nixon in the cover-up and another staffer revealed the existence of a taping system Nixon used to record conversations in the Oval Office. A constitutional crisis ensued as Nixon sought to block the release of the tapes, citing executive privilege and the separation of powers. Next, in what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre," Nixon fired the special prosecutor and the attorney general instead of compromising on the issue of the tapes. Finally, when Nixon agreed to release the tapes, they had been heavily edited and important material was missing. On July 24, 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Nixon to release sixty-four tapes, which then revealed that Nixon had directly participated in the cover-up and had been lying to the American people.
At the same time, Congress began impeachment proceedings and voted to impeach Nixon on three charges: obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and acting in a way subversive of the Constitution. Richard Nixon resigned on August 8. One month later, President Ford granted Nixon a pardon to "any and all crimes" he committed, sparing him from a trial.
The Impeachment of President William Clinton
Just like the airing of Nixon's dirty laundry, President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial would result in the American public learning of dramatic and damaging information about the president's conduct. But before the impeachment, and before Monica Lewinsky, there was the lawsuit. In 1994, Paula Jones filed a lawsuit alleging that then-governor Bill Clinton had sexually harassed her in a hotel room in Arkansas. After years of legal maneuvering, political spin, and lurid tabloid banter, the lawsuit ended with a fizzle when Judge Susan Webber Wright dismissed it in early 1998. Within the mass of material generated by that case were the seeds of a much greater scandal--the president's affair with a young White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.
The central figures and events of the next year were to absorb the country like no other political drama in American history. Linda Tripp, Kenneth Starr, and David Kendall became household names. Americans found themselves debating over the semantics of the verb "is." Internet smut took on a whole new meaning with the release of the special prosecutor's report, and a certain blue dress became the most talked-about article of clothing in recent memory.
Then there was the impeachment. Part political theater, part serious attempt to address the president's untruthful statements, the trial of the president ended in acquittal along straight party-line votes. This famous trial gave Americans much to debate, particularly the question of how much the American public deserves to know about the private conduct of a president.
American labor history is filled with drama. One emotional episode erupted during the period known as the Gilded Age, when great fortunes were being amassed, though not by the laboring man. Working-class people living in Chicago in the 1880s struggled with economic depression and unemployment, and many workers were active in the labor movement.
A small group of workers became convinced that the only solution was to bring an end to the capitalist system, using violence if necessary. In May of 1886, more than forty thousand workers went on strike, causing city officials to fear an outbreak of violence. Labor activists held mass meetings and gave fiery speeches to raise the spirits of the striking workers.
A large gathering was planned for the night of May 4, and was advertised with the headlines "Revenge!" and "Workingmen, to Arms!" Over a thousand people gathered in Haymarket Square to listen to speeches, many given by well-known anarchists. Chicago police, fearing an uprising, dispatched approximately 180 officers, who marched into the square. The captain said, "In the name of the people of the State of Illinois, I command this meeting immediately and peaceably to disperse." At that moment, a bomb flew through the air and exploded directly in front of a group of police, killing seven and injuring more than sixty. After a moment of shocked silence, the police opened fire into the crowd, killing and wounding dozens of workers, many of whom were fleeing in panic.
Immediately after the bombing, many Americans blamed the anarchists, or "Reds," for the violence, and the police jailed more than two hundred people who were known to be supporters of the anarchists. Eight men were charged with participating in the bombing and with conspiracy to murder. Though the men had a clear alibi to prove they had not thrown the bomb, they were considered to be part of a conspiracy because they had advocated the overthrow of the government at one time or another. One man was found guilty of a minor role, and the remaining seven were sentenced to die.
Both the Illinois Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of the United States refused to overturn the convictions. As the date of the execution approached, pressure was brought to bear on the governor of Illinois. Would he grant clemency? In the end, he commuted to life imprisonment the sentences of two prisoners who had expressed remorse. One prisoner committed suicide by exploding a dynamite cap in his mouth, and the four remaining men were to be executed.
On November 11, 1887, the four men were led onto a scaffold. Their ankles were tied with a leather strap, a noose was placed around each neck, and then a hood. Before the trap door was opened beneath them, the first man cried out, "Hurrah for anarchy!" in German, the second repeated the cry in English, and the third said, "Let the voice of the people be heard!" At that moment, the door sprang open and the four men plunged to their deaths. More than twenty thousand people followed the funeral procession, and many Americans believed that the trial was unjust.
Sacco and Vanzetti
Several other famous trials in American history stirred interest because they occurred in politically conservative times and featured politically radical defendants. For example, American fears of Communism were central to the events of the Red Scare of the 1920s, during which many Americans still feared that Communists and anarchists were plotting a violent takeover. At the height of this antiradical fervor, known anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were arrested for a robbery and murder in South Braintree, Massachusetts.
During the trial, the prosecution attempted to prove Sacco and Vanzetti's guilt through eyewitness testimony placing them at the scene of the crime, and technical experts who linked them to the weapon. The defense also called eyewitnesses, who denied seeing Sacco and Vanzetti at the crime scene. The jury found both men guilty, and they received the mandatory death sentence for first-degree murder. While the defense's appeals were pending before the Massachusetts Supreme Court, another man named Celestino Madieros confessed to the Braintree robbery and murder. Even in light of this new evidence, the judge refused to grant a new trial.
For many Americans, as the case moved through the judicial system, the guilty verdict came to symbolize injustice and intolerance due to the persecution of anarchists, and many believed in Sacco and Vanzetti's innocence. Even future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter weighed in on the matter, publishing an article in a 1927 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, in which he argued the men were innocent, and that their trial had been unfair.
In the midst of intense interest in the case, the Massachusetts Supreme Court denied the appeals, leaving the question of Sacco and Vanzetti's execution to the governor. Governor Alvan Fuller accepted the guilty verdict, and Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in August of 1927. Worldwide demonstrations failed to stop the execution, and on the day of Sacco and Vanzetti's death, thousands of mourners gathered to follow the funeral carriages.
Sixty years later, scholars still debate the outcome. Were Sacco and Vanzetti guilty as charged, or were they persecuted for their anarchist beliefs? In the late 1970s, a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit resulted in the release of additional evidence that led one historian to conclude that, yes, Sacco and Vanzetti were probably innocent. Certainly, given all the material available at the time, not enough evidence existed to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Recent findings also reveal that prosecutors concealed evidence that may have helped the defense, serving to underscore the importance of future Warren Court decisions that compel prosecutors to reveal exculpatory evidence. Sacco's and Vanzetti's executions remain powerful reminders that fear and prejudice can influence the outcome of a trial and perhaps cause a miscarriage of justice.
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg
American fears of Communism did not die with Sacco and Vanzetti. In fact, they are evident in another famous trial, in which Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were accused of treason against the United States. After the Soviet Union exploded their first atomic weapon in 1949, amid the first rumblings of the Cold War, American intelligence officers discovered that information about the U.S. atomic weapons program had been leaked to the Soviets. A fervent search for the source led agents to an employee of a British atomic agency, who in turn led agents to the Rosenbergs. Julius had worked as an engineer for the Army, and both Rosenbergs came under suspicion because of their admitted Communist sympathies.
The prosecution's chief witness during the 1951 trial was David Greenglass, who had worked as a machinist at Los Alamos. Greenglass, in exchange for a reduced sentence, admitted passing secrets to the Soviets and declared he was recruited by his sister, Ethel, and her husband Julius Rosenberg. Since Greenglass testified that atomic secrets were exchanged during wartime, the Rosenbergs could receive the death penalty under the Espionage Act of 1917.
The prosecution established that information had reached the Soviets, but failed to fully prove that the Rosenbergs were in any way involved. In fact, Greenglass was the only person who claimed to have any knowledge of the Rosenbergs, and it is rare that an admitted felon's uncorroborated testimony is given such credence. Unfortunately, the defense did not capitalize on this and other weaknesses in the prosecution's case. In addition, when the Rosenbergs took the stand, they refused to answer questions about their membership in the Communist Party, tainting them in the eyes of the jury and the judge. Both Rosenbergs were found guilty, and both received the death penalty.
Much like Sacco and Vanzetti, the fate of the Rosenbergs attracted emotionally charged international attention. The case was appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court, but the Court declined the hear the case. President Eisenhower denied clemency, even though President Auriol of France, Pope Pius XII, and Albert Einstein asked him to pardon the Rosenbergs. Defense attorneys pleaded with the Supreme Court to reconsider, but the Court refused. Even when the Court finally agreed to rule on the case, it voted 6 to 3 to allow the execution to proceed, and, amid intense media visibility, on June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death in the electric chair.
American fears of Communism in the postwar period were evident not only in the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs, but also in anti-Communist campaigns conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). In 1953, McCarthy was put in charge of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and he hired Roy Cohn as chief counsel. Cohn did much of the committee background work as it investigated suspected Communists.
Senator McCarthy became well-known for his anti-Communist campaign, in which he expounded fiery anti-Communist diatribes in print and in the new medium of television. McCarthy claimed to have a list of Communists working for the government, including the secretary of state and, ridiculously, Secretary of Defense George Marshall. Those who disagreed with McCarthy's claims or tactics would not openly criticize him for fear of looking "soft" on Communism.
Beginning in 1945, HUAC searched for Communists in Hollywood, academia, the federal government, and labor unions. People who were called to testify before HUAC and its Senate counterpart, the McCarran Committee, were not only required to renounce Communism, but also to "name names" of other Communist sympathizers. Those who refused would plead the Fifth Amendment, but that in itself would call their loyalty into question.
Due to McCarthy's activities, this period in American history has been described by historians as the "Second Red Scare," or the era of McCarthyism. Many prominent actors, producers, academics, and scientists were either jailed for refusing to cooperate, or saw their careers ruined. Even the threat of being summoned before HUAC led one scientist to commit suicide. Additionally, HUAC collected information on over sixty thousand people, which they furnished to employers, and more than fifteen thousand federal employees and thousands of teachers were forced to resign when they would not sign a loyalty oath. Even the Cincinnati baseball team temporarily changed its name from the Reds to the Redlegs, in order to avoid an association with Communism. For many Americans, particularly those who were fired or disgraced during this period, anti-Communist hysteria carried deadly serious repercussions.
The Chicago Seven
By the 1960s, however, turmoil over American involvement in the Vietnam War had shifted the spotlight to the political stage, as student radicals made their positions clear in the streets. Tension over the war simmered during the summer of 1968, during which the Democratic Party held their convention in Chicago. Well-known activists such as Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and Tom Hayden publicized their intent to conduct demonstrations at the convention, while at the same time, Mayor Daley broadcast his intention to restrict the protests. Five thousand demonstrators were met by almost twenty thousand police officers, who soon began to break up the protests through the use of violence, akin to a "police riot." As the violence continued over several nights and was broadcast live on network television, America's attention turned from the political events inside the convention hall to the war zone developing outside.
In March 1969, Dave Dellinger, Rubin, Hoffman, Hayden, and four others were indicted for conspiracy under the 1968 Civil Rights Act, which made it a crime to cross state lines with the intention of inciting a riot. After Bobby Seale's defense was separated, the defendants became known as the "Chicago Seven." The defendants hoped the trial would focus attention on the immorality of the Vietnam War, while the prosecution attempted to demonstrate the existence of a left-wing radical conspiracy.
From the beginning, the defendants faced an uphill battle. The judge, Julius Hoffman, presided over a jury selection that resulted in, as one trial observer put it, a jury that looked like "the Rolling Meadows Bowling League lost on their way to the lanes." William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, the defense attorneys, had submitted a lengthy list of questions for jury selection, but Hoffman utilized only one of their questions. Consequently, after the trial, biased jurors voiced opinions that the defendants should have been convicted "on their appearance, their language, and their lifestyle." One juror even suggested that the activists should have been "shot down by the police."
Not surprisingly, given the personalities of the defendants, the Chicago Seven trial often resembled a circus. For example, the defendants would sometimes shout directly at the judge, show up for trial attired in blue jeans and beads, sit with their feet on the table, eat jelly beans, or sleep. The defense suggested that aspects of the prosecution's supposed conspiracy were merely jokes--the defendants' threat to put LSD in the Chicago water supply, for instance. The defense also suggested that it was ridiculous to even imagine all of the activists reaching an agreement on basic tactics, let alone working together, as Abbie Hoffman said, "Conspiracy? Hell, we couldn't agree on lunch."
The jury initially deadlocked, but after stern instructions from the judge to try again, they compromised and found the defendants guilty of crossing state lines to incite a riot, but not guilty of the conspiracy charges. Judge Hoffman sentenced each to five years in prison, in addition to the stiff sentences he imposed for their 159 counts of contempt of court. Interestingly, defense attorney Kunstler also received a sentence of four years and thirteen days for contempt. All convictions would eventually be overturned by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, based largely on the unfair method by which Judge Hoffman selected jurors.