Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Explorations Below Ground: Profile James E. Starrs

Another Historic Analysis

During the mid-1980s, James Starrs published two papers about the work of firearms experts in the historic case of Nicola Sacco, 29, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, 32, who were arrested for the shooting murders on April 15, 1920, of two security guards delivering payroll money to a shoe company. The killers escaped with $16,000, but left behind shell casings from their guns. At that time, expertise in firearms was still in its primitive stages, making it possible for pseudo-experts to dupe juries - and they sometimes did. In a sensational trial like this one, where the firearms interpretation made the entire case, there was pressure to make statements with an air of certainty. People around the world were following the trial.

Nicola Sacco & Bartolomeo Vanzetti
Nicola Sacco & Bartolomeo Vanzetti

The facts were these: the killers had driven off in a black Buick. Eyewitnesses described them as "Italian-looking" and one of them had a handlebar mustache. Investigators recovered six ejected shell casings from the sidewalk and traced them to three manufacturers: Remington, Winchester, and Peters. They also found the getaway car, abandoned, and linked it with an earlier robbery. Police looked for an Italian thug named Mike Boda, but he'd gone to Italy, so they arrested his associates: Sacco and Vanzetti. They had illegal pistols on their person and Sacco's was the right caliber - a .32 Colt automatic - to be the murder weapon. Sacco also sported a handlebar mustache and had two dozen bullets on him made by the three manufacturers. Both men were also members of a radical anarchist group that supported violence to resolve injustice.

Sacco & Vanzetti guns
Sacco & Vanzetti guns

Sacco was tried for robbery in the earlier case and found guilty. He was later tried with his partner, Vanzetti, for the murder of Alessandro Berardelli, one of the murdered security guards. That trial began on May 31, 1921, and public opinion was against them. Yet many foreigners sided with them and the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee called the whole ordeal a witch-hunt based in prejudice.

Four bullets had been removed from the murdered payroll guards, requiring experts to testify as to whether Sacco's .32 pistol was indeed the murder weapon, but on the prosecution team, opinions were mixed. Defense experts were more confident, although none based his ideas on scientific techniques.

The jury decided that both men were guilty, probably based on the fact that the bullet that had killed Berardelli was so outdated that the only bullets similar enough to make comparisons were those in Sacco's pockets. Jurors had even used a magnifying glass to examine the bullets for themselves. The defendants were sentenced to death.

Then another firearms expert helped to get the men a hearing for a new trial. The defense hired Albert H. Hamilton, a pharmacist who falsely passed himself off as a doctor with an expertise in firearms, to definitively state that the gun in the possession of the two men was not the murder weapon. The jury did not know that in 1917, his testimony in an earlier case that nearly got a man executed had been proven by a ballistics lab to be false.

The prosecution's expert, Charles Van Amburgh, re-examined the evidence in 1923, with state-of-the-art bullet comparison technology. He enlarged the photos of the fatal bullet and the bullets fired from Sacco's revolver, insisting that they were identical.

Hamilton tried to pull off a sleight-of-hand that would prove his point. He brought in Sacco's .32 and two new Colt revolvers. There in court, he disassembled them all and tried to exchange one of the new barrels with the one from Sacco's gun. Judge Thayer saw what he was doing and told him to return the original barrel for Sacco's gun. Thayer then denied the motion for another trial.

Huey Long
Huey Long

A committee was appointed to review the case and they contacted Calvin Goddard in 1927, who had worked with Charles Waite at the Bureau of Forensic Ballistics in New York. He used a comparison microscope and helixometer to make a rigorous examination. In the presence of one of the defense experts, he fired a bullet from Sacco's gun into a wad of cotton and then put the ejected evidentiary casing on the comparison microscope next to casings found at the scene. Then he looked at them carefully. The first two casings were no match, but the third one was. Even the defense expert agreed that these two bullets had been fired from the same gun. A second original defense expert also concurred, so the defendants were executed.

Carl Weiss
Carl Weiss

A subsequent investigation with better technology in 1961 supported Goddard's findings. Yet in 1977, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation for the innocence of both Sacco and Vanzetti. That was tantamount to saying that ballistics experts had no grounds for their conclusion. During the 1980s, Starrs re-examined the work of experts George Wilson, Marshall Robinson and Larry Paul, who all had been involved in making the firearms re-determination. He, too, confirmed their opinions and published his findings.

Carl Weiss' coffin, exhumed
Carl Weiss' coffin, exhumed

His involvement in a case about firearms and ballistic analysis soon led to his work on the assassination of Louisiana Governor Huey Long and his alleged assassin, Carl Weiss. The convoluted path of that investigation is fully documented in A Voice for the Dead, and its eventual resolution brought even more opportunities to the professor for exhumations.

They weren't all famous people or high-profile cases. Even as he continued to be a Socratic gadfly with scientists and historians, he was invited into cases in which the manner of an ordinary person's death was ambiguous. The families were seeking justice and he felt the lure to assist.

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