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Felix Frankfurter - The Case Of Sacco And Vanzetti

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One criminal trial that symbolized Frankfurter's advocacy of reform in the criminal justice field was the Sacco-Vanzetti case. In April 1920, at the height of the Red Scare, a payroll clerk and guard were murdered and robbed in the small industrial town of South Braintree near Boston, Massachusetts. Three weeks later two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, wandered into a trap set by police to capture the suspects.

Neither Sacco nor Vanzetti had a previous criminal record, but they were known to authorities for their support of local labor strikes, antiwar activities during World War I, and associations with other political radicals. Though not considered suspects at first, police found that the two were armed and carried politically radical literature. Suspicion grew as the two Nicola Sacco, left, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti stood trial and were convicted of crimes they did not commit in one of the most notorious political trials in U.S. history. Frankfurter and other advocates of reform in the criminal justice system used this case as an example to support their reform efforts. (© Bettmann/Corbis)
did not answer questions directly about their current activities, perhaps trying to protect others.

Both Sacco and Vanzetti were taken into custody and eventually charged with the crimes. The resulting court case was one of the most notorious political trials in the United States during the twentieth century. Their defense attorney aggressively attacked the police for focusing primarily on the defendants' political activities and involvement in the Italian anarchist (opposing structured governments) movement, rather than on evidence pertaining to the robbery and murders. Considerable publicity from the trial caught international attention. After a long six-week trial, the jury found them guilty on July 14, 1921.

Numerous attempts to appeal the verdict based on potential flaws in the trial's proceedings and even possible confessions to the crime from others in custody were rejected. The case grew in notoriety. Demonstrations were held in the United States as well as Europe on Sacco and Vanzetti's behalf for a retrial. These efforts failed too and the two men were sentenced to death on April 8, 1927.

The Supreme Court of the United States

The U.S. Supreme Court is located in Washington, D.C. It is the highest court in the United States and has ultimate judicial authority to interpret and decide questions of both federal and state law. As a result of this authority, it has had some of the greatest impacts on the nation's criminal justice system. The Supreme Court is the only court required by the U.S. Constitution. All other federal courts are created by Congress with intentionally limited jurisdiction. The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction in suits between states but most of its work consists of reviewing appeals from state supreme courts or lower federal courts.

The justices of the Supreme Court are appointed for life by the president and confirmed by a majority vote of the Senate. As of 2004, nine justices sat on the Supreme Court with one being appointed chief justice and the remaining members designated as associate justices. The U.S. Constitution provides, in Article I, Section 3, that if a president is impeached (charged formally with misconduct in office), "the Chief Justice shall preside" over the Senate trial.

On September 24, 1789, the Judiciary Act became law. In addition to establishing the Supreme Court, the act divided the country into three circuits, and established three circuit courts: Eastern, Middle, and Southern. The act did not provide separate judgeships for the circuit courts but directed that each was to consist of two Supreme Court justices and one district judge.

The Judiciary Act also established thirteen district courts and judgeships, providing at least one district court for each state then in the Union. The district courts functioned as trial courts, while the circuit courts served as trial courts for certain kinds of cases but also heard appeals from the lower courts. The Supreme Court was the highest appellate court and had the jurisdiction to review all appeals from the lower courts.

The Supreme Court first met on February 2, 1790. Since they still had no cases on the docket, the justices spent the first session attending to administrative matterssuch as the adoption of Rules of the Court and the admission of attorneys to the Supreme Court bar. The Court was to define what would be law and to invalidate any legislative or executive act that would be contrary to the Constitution.

During the first decade of the Court, the justices devoted most of their time to organizing the federal judicial system and riding circuit, visiting a series of federal courts located around a particular geographic area to hear appeals of cases, to hear cases as trial and appellate judges. Civil disputes between citizens of different states as well as controversies concerning national government and its laws comprised most of the early cases heard. Previously there had only been state courts and the concept of the "United States" was relatively new, so many were initially reluctant to accept the new federal authority.

Although the circuit-riding of justices played an important role in educating citizens about their federal government, it took a heavy toll on those serving. Justices wrote to family and friends recounting the physical challenges of riding the circuit by horseback, stagecoach, and steamboat while lodging in taverns and public houses for long periods of time each year. Finally, in 1891, Congress passed the Circuit Court of Appeals Act establishing nine Circuit Courts of Appeals with permanent judgeships.

For the next 170 years, the Court issued few rulings related to rights of defendants or victims in the criminal justice system. The Court would make its mark in criminal law in the 1960s under the leadership of Justice Earl Warren (1891–1974). The Court made several landmark decisions between 1961 and 1966 affirming the rights of the accused in the criminal justice system from such police actions as illegal search and seizure (known as the exclusionary rule) and advising suspects of their rights before interrogations (Miranda rights).

The exclusionary rule states that evidence illegally obtained by the police cannot be used in a court of law. Miranda rights state that police must advise a person being arrested that they have the right to remain silent, that anything they say can be used against them in court, they have the right to have a lawyer, and that a lawyer will be provided if the person cannot afford one.

Frankfurter stepped forward to rally public support by claiming that justice had not been served. With pressure from Frankfurter and other influential people, the governor of Massachusetts formed a committee that included the president of Harvard University. The committee was to determine if the governor should grant clemency (reduce the severity of the sentence) for the defendants. After a quick review, the committee determined clemency was not in order.

Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on April 23. Frankfurter protested what he claimed was the unjust nature of the entire case. He charged that the trial was driven by a strong bias against immigrants and political radicals. Decades later after several reviews, researchers could still not find sufficient evidence to support the guilt of either Sacco or Vanzetti.

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