Sacco and Vanzetti: Misplaced Justice?

Before McCarthyism, there was the Red Scare.

And just like McCarthyism, the Red Scare had all of America paranoid and on constant alert. And when paranoid, humans can be known to be over-vigilant and even irrational. One famous 1920s trial placed some of that hysteria into the American criminal justice system, and two men may have been convicted for their beliefs, instead of the crime for which they were charged.

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian-born anarchists living in Red Scare America, just after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 that overthrew the U.S.-allied czarist government and instilled a communist regime. Communism then became seen as a real threat to the American way of life, so anything that was not seen as pro-America was seen to be “radical” and feared.

Such was the case with two anarchists in Massachusetts – Sacco was a shoe-maker, Vanzetti a fishmonger. In April 1920, a shoe factory was robbed of about $15,000 in payroll cash, and a paymaster and guard were both shot and killed during the robbery. A few days later, while police were heading to a location where the alleged getaway car was found, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested and charged with the robbery and murder, as they were two “Italian-looking” men as described by witnesses, and were carrying loaded weapons at the time of their arrest.

The pair was found to have a gun that matched one carried by the murdered guard that was not found at the scene, and they had shell casings and bullets on them that were similar to those found at the crime scene. The pair also denied being anarchists, or even owning guns. After anarchist literature was also found on them, the pair was arrested and indicted for the robbery and double homicide.

In 1921, the trial itself did not gain much attention – but the result sparked controversy. Despite Sacco and Vanzetti having no prior criminal records, conflicting ballistic and forensic reports, and several key witnesses’ credibility being questioned during the trial, and police failing to recover the stolen money, the pair was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by the judge.

As details fo the trial came out in the weeks and months following, some communists and anarchists began speaking up in advocating for Sacco and Vanzetti’s innocence, and demanding their release. Noting that many witnesses were discredited, there was no money found, and there was no absolute connection between forensics and ballistics to the two men, the calls of innocence began to ring louder as the pair went through their series of appeals.

Over the next five years, opposition to the conviction began to take on a life of its own, and protests and violent demonstrations were held in several major international cities lambasting the American judicial system for its unfair and unjust treatment of what was believed to be two innocent men simply because of their anarchist, anti-government beliefs.

More and more people in the public became convinced that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent, and demonstrations became more violent, including bombs being set off in New York and Philadelphia. However, despite the public outcry and several appeals, the two men were executed in the electric chair in August 1927.

In the decades the followed, Massachusetts thoroughly reviewed the case and looked at how forensic investigations were conducted and aimed to improve them so that biases could be better neutralized. In 1977, the 50th anniversary of Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s executions, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis proclaimed that the pair was treated unjustly in a form of apology on behalf of the state, and urged that no “stigma” be attached to the names of the two men going forward.

Harry Thaw & The Very Public Murder

An estimated 1,000 witnesses. A jealous but wealthy husband. An equally wealthy man of society who has a propensity for taking young lovers.

Two plus two equals … not guilty.

There has always been a belief in two justice systems in America – one for the wealthy and well-connected, and one for everyone else. But you know what happens when two wealthy families are on opposite ends of a murder?

That depends, we suppose. In 1907-08, riches didn’t control the mind, and the mind proved to be a powerful defense.

It’s famously known as the “trial of the century” by American media at the time, as well-known architect Stanford White was shot and killed at the outdoor rooftop theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and coal and railroad heir Harry K. Thaw was put on trial for the very public murder in front of nearly 1,000 people who were watching a performance at the theater at the time of the shooting.

The setup is that Thaw had a lovely young wife named Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, who was a “supermodel” of the day, being featured on the covers of every major magazine in the country.  Thaw learned that her bride had been involved with the noted lothario Mr. White prior to the marriage, and Thaw became quite jealous of, and obsessed with, Mr. White. There was a report that White had raped Mrs. Thaw, but that was not definitively corroborated.

Thaw was charged with the June 1906, murder, and went on trial in January 1907 in what was called the “trial of the century.” Thaw claimed an insanity defense, saying that he shot White in a fit of jealous rage over the previous relationship. After much deliberation, including evidence that suggested that Thaw was not temporarily insane but had a history of mental instability that was consistent throughout his family, the jury was hopelessly deadlocked in deciding whether Thaw committed murder, as several on the jury were convinced of the insanity defense.

After that hung trial, Thaw was re-tried a year later, in January 1908, and much of the same media circus followed along. Thaw remained in jail during this time, and maintained his insanity defense, despite all the witnesses to the shooting who all corroborated the story seeing Thaw shoot White in cold-blood leading to this death.

The second trial went much the way of the first, with Thaw’s defense team presenting him as a man mentally disturbed and especially triggered by the relationship of the woman he loved with a man who was the toast of New York society at the time.  With the second jury, a verdict did come back – and Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

But instead of being freed, he was declared criminally insane and was sent to a mental institution until he was released in 1924, 16 years later.

Of course, there would be a couple more “trials of the century,” in the 20th century, but it is said that the Harry Thaw murder trial signaled the “end” of what was called the Gilded Age in America.  It was known as one of the first great celebrity trials in America, and it was one of the early successful insanity defenses.

The Genesis Of The Term “Bobbit”

If social media existed in the early 1990s, this would have been a viral meme.

And a term would be in the current Urban Dictionary and would be used thousands of times, maybe even in contexts that don’t fit – but might be scary.

In the 1990s, it was about “Don’t get Bobbitted.” Or it was, “Before you go all Bobbitt on him …”

Guns are considered dangerous weapons, but not kitchen knives in the hands of a crossed woman?

You’d want the gun, if there was a chance that woman was as ticked off as Lorena Bobbitt. She became a verb in the English vernacular.

For those not in the know, Lorena Bobbitt was the husband of John Wayne Bobbitt in 1993, who infamously sliced off her husband’s – um, membership – while he slept in their home in Manassas, Virginia. Lorena had enough of John’s abuse, including a claim that he had raped her earlier that night while he was drunk.

After verbal, physical, emotional and sexual abuse through most of their marriage, Lorena finally had enough. She waited for John to fall asleep, then she went to the kitchen, grabbed a knife and cut off the entirety of John’s membership and took off in her car with it, finally throwing it into a nearby field.

A short time later, Lorena came to her sense and called 9-1-1, and authorities searched for the appendage and put John through more than 9 hours of surgery to re-attach it. John later appeared in an adult movie in an effort to prove that his membership was still functioning.

The trial in 1994 was a media circus and a ratings bonanza unlike any seen to that point (until the O.J. Simpson murder trial a year later), as many were glued to the reports about the details of the incident and the backstory. Lorena’s defense brought forth many witnesses to John’s character and his abusive nature toward Lorena, showing justification and a self-defense angle to what she did.

Lorena was found not guilty due to insanity, but she was put in the national media for weeks as a poster woman for victims of spousal abuse, and in some circles hailed as a hero or stepping up in favor for abuse victims who often don’t have a voice.

One of the legal issues that came to the fore as a result of the trial was the topic of spousal rape, whether it was a thing and the penalties for such a charge. There was a quick push across the country for spousal rape to be added to criminal codes as a charge related to, but separate from, domestic and sexual abuse.

For a while there, men were much more tentative around women who seemed weak but had an inners strength and passionate emotion that could drive them to do such an act. Men who seemed dominant suddenly were perceived as being equalized by a crossed woman and a kitchen utensil.

And it went to show how powerful the “fight or flight” instinct can be, even in those who are perceived as being too weak to have their own voice.

And it made some men afraid of going into their kitchens for a while.

Sandy Drummond Has Scotland Perplexed

Even a TV documentary couldn’t help.

One of the more frustrating cold cases in Scotland’s long history has been deemed so “unsolvable,” that even a television documentary series that highlighted this case, didn’t generate enough new leads to break the case open.

Nearly 15 years after the documentary aired, and more than 25 years since the act took place, the murder of 33-year-old Sandy Drummond is as mysterious as ever.

Drummond, a laborer, was found dead in June 1991, on a farm road just outside his cottage home in the village of Boorhills in Scotland, and investigators have reviewed the case several times over the years with no successful prosecution of a suspect.

There was a claim made by an investigative reporter in the UK a few years ago that he had seen some investigative notes about the case and noted that the police did have a suspect in mind, but by the time they went to him to question and/or arrest him, the person was already dead – also murdered, it turned out. That event changed the direction of the investigation, in that the murder suggested that there may have been accomplices to the murder, or that this suspect was an accomplice of the actual murderer.

Drummond was found strangled, oddly just a few days after he reportedly withdrew all his money from the bank and quit his job. There is no evidence of this being a robbery or mugging gone bad but the timeline was certainly curious.

In 2003, a TV documentary series was created to highlight some of the most prominent unsolved cases in Scotland, and the Drummond case was one that had an entire episode of the series devoted to it. While some leads were generated from airing the details of the case, nothing concrete came of them, and it faded back into obscurity.

But then, about 10 years later, as forensics have evolved at an ever-increasing pace, Fife Police in Scotland began a full review of the case, taking another look at the evidence and facts. With that scrutiny, they were hopeful to use more advanced forensics – such as being able to establish DNA from small skin or blood samples even 20 years old and somewhat decomposed –

The investigative reporter stated that in his research of the facts, the forensics seemed to indicate that Drummond was killed by some “ju-jitsu stranglehold,” claiming the the injuries suffered were consistent with some kind of martial-arts move. These usually do not use hands, which means forensic evidence like hand prints, fingerprints and dirt or blood under the nails would be reasonably ineffective according to the website.

As we are writing about this being an unsolved mystery even 10 years after a review, probably tells you that the Sandy Drummond murder remains high on the list of the most mysterious unsolved crimes currently on the books, one of the bigger mysteries in recent history – now moving ahead of Al Capone’s vault. So maybe the Fife Police should finally send Geraldo Rivera a thank- you card.

Too bad that won’t solve the mystery that is so mysterious, even massive public awareness didn’t solve it.

The Serial Killer Sergei Ryakhovsky

At least nineteen people died at the hands of a skilled serial killer in Moscow between 1988 and 1993. His name was Sergei Ryakhovsky, and he would eventually be caught, tried, and convicted for his crimes. He was slammed with a life sentence for the string of murders, and died of untreated tuberculosis at the age of 42 while he was serving his time. Some would say it wasn’t nearly enough of a punishment for what he did, and others would agree.

He was likely addicted to the adrenaline rush provided by sexual encounters, himself claiming “an irresistible desire for intimacy with a woman.” Age was apparently just a number for Ryakhovsky, as he repeatedly tried to rape elderly women before he was sent to prison for four years after a “hooliganism” conviction. It’s sort of a light charge for attempted rape, as hooliganism is more of a catch-all in Russia and other parts of the world for immoral behavior that most don’t approve of. While technically accurate, hooliganism is not a stiff charge.

Ryakhovsky discovered his love for killing in 1988, when he murdered a gay man on the outskirts of Moscow. He went on a quick killing spree that same year, killing three more gay men. When asked why, he suggested that he wanted to cleanse society of homosexual abominations and prostitutes.

It turned out that it wasn’t so important who they were.

He murdered men, elderly women, and teenagers before he was caught–and they’re just the ones we know about for certain. The murders became progressively more brutal as time went on. Most of his killing was done by stabbing, but he also liked to strangle victims to death with just his bare hands. Sometimes he used a bit of rope. He mutilated many of their bodies, sometimes performing sexual acts on the corpses to gratify himself. Mostly the mutilation involved the genitalia of the victims.

He started mutilating victims in other ways toward the end of his run. One elderly man was decapitated and had his leg cut off the next day. An elderly woman was eviscerated with some sort of firework or other pyrotechnic device. His second-to-last victim was only sixteen years old, but Ryakhovsky wasn’t any nicer to children. He hanged the young boy, then disemboweled and decapitated him.

When detectives were examining one of the crime scenes, they came upon a shack. Inside the shack was an unused noose. They decided that the killer must be readying another victim for hanging, and so they lay in wait. When Ryakhovsky stumbled into the shack, they arrested him. When asked why he did not resist, he suggested that he was afraid of their weapons. That’s the mind of a killer for you.

While he initially confessed to the murders and explained in grisly detail, he was eventually diagnosed with a biological malfunction that led to his necrophiliac impulses. Even so, he was deemed competent to stand trial, and went on to do so. He discovered his recent diagnosis at this time, and stopped cooperating with the legal system. He recanted his previous confessions, but at this point it didn’t matter.

He was to die by firing squad after being sentenced to death in 1995, but Russia began the process of ending the death penalty before it was carried out. Instead, this cold-blooded killer received life in prison.

Scotland’s Overtoun Bridge And A Rash Of Dog Suicides

You probably wouldn’t think that man’s best friend was ever feeling so depressed that he might want to take the big plunge, but dog suicide is apparently a thing–whether they intentionally trip and fall or not. In West Dunbartonshire, Scotland lies a quaint little bridge designed by H.E. Milner. It’s popular not because of its beautiful architecture, though. The bridge has, for whatever reason, led to a number of dogs falling to their deaths. The international media, naturally, has taken a keen liking to this bridge and the phenomenon of dog suicide it seemingly perpetuates.

You might come to think that dozens of poor pooches are leaping to their graves every year, but the number is closer to one annually. Still terrible, but things could always be much worse. While that isn’t so high when you compare the number of human jumpers at other famous bridges across the globe, it’s still worth noting when considering a somewhat less depressed animal–like the canine.

After jumping, there is a fifty-foot drop to the waterfalls below. Researchers have since put a lot of thought into discovering why exactly these dogs are so attracted to the grim reaper and have found some interest factual tidbits that may or may not be related. First, dogs almost always jump from the same side of the bridge. Second, they usually do it when the weather is clear (granted, maybe people just tend to be more likely to take their dogs for a walk when it’s nice out–correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but you’ve probably heard that all before). Third, the dogs all have long snouts.

Animal experts aren’t doing much better when trying to find a reasonable explanation. David Sexton decided to focus on the factors of sight, sound, and smell when investigating but decided to go with the latter factor when mice and mink were discovered underneath the bridge. He eventually concluded that the dogs were probably attracted to mink urine, but a resident hunter says no. According to him, there are no mink under the bridge and never have been. How they were discovered when they’ve never been there is a question for later. In any case, it does seem likely that the dogs who have leaped to their deaths from the edge of the bridge likely smelled something they liked. Dogs see with their noses, and when you like what you see, you go for it. Right?

Sadly, strangeness surrounding the Overtoun bridge isn’t limited to dog suicide. In 1994, a man tossed his only two-week-old son off the bridge because, hey, that’s what you do when you think your just-born kid is the devil personified. The son was killed, but when the man tried to commit suicide the same way, he failed, later trying again in a more old-fashioned wrist slashing. He survived.

Eventually, a sign was put up warning dog owners of the potential dangers of the wonderfully aromatic Overtoun bridge. Please, if you visit the famous bridge, do keep your dogs leashed. If you think your children are possessed by Satan, on the other hand, you should probably just take them to church and say a quick prayer.

What Is The Dyatlov Incident?

Nine hikers died on February 2, 1959 in the Ural Mountains–but no one knows why. After a lengthy investigation, researchers on the case concluded only that an “unknown compelling force” led to their deaths. The details of the case only get weirder from there on out, but first and foremost, know this: these weren’t first-timers. The nine hikers were experienced, and they knew what they were doing.

So what did the scene look like when the nine hikers were found?

First, they did not all succumb to death in the same way. While most died of hypothermia, three died of physical wounds, and those wounds only lead to more questions. One of the dead hikers had cranial damage. Another had no obvious trauma to the skull, but suffered brain damage. A third female hiker seemed to have had her eyes and tongue ripped out. One had a crushed chest. On top of these strange injuries, one must consider the circumstances under which they fled from the relative comfort of their tents. It was snowing heavily at the time, and temperatures were well below zero. Experienced hikers would have known to stay indoors.

Did a yeti attack take place?

It sounds absurd, but some theorize an animal attack may be the most likely explanation. Others believe that the military had a part in the nine deaths. There are other possibilities. A fierce avalanche could explain some circumstances of the scene, while infrasound-induced panic could explain others. No matter what one concludes, the mystery simply cannot be neatly unpacked and wrapped with only the evidence we have right now.

Here’s what we do know.

When they fled the tent, they were either in socks or barefoot. Investigators believe the tent had been cut open from the inside, although when they arrived on the scene the tent was partly on the ground and covered from snowfall. That’s not too surprising since the attack likely happened before February 12, when the group expected to be back, and rescuers only descended on the camp on February 26.

Two bodies were found at the edge of a nearby forest, in only their underwear. Before they succumbed to nature’s wrath, they had managed to keep a small fire going. Three more bodies were discovered in between the camp and the forest, at varying intervals. The other four were not located for months. Nature had dumped four meters of snow over their bodies. They had managed to make it 75 meters farther than the first two who died at the edge of the forest.

Take it for what it’s worth, but a different set of hikers fifty kilometers away saw orange spheres in the skies where the Dyatlov incident took place. These same spheres were reported being seen nearby during February and March of the same year. These weren’t just crazy-people sightings, either. Both the military and meteorology services operating in the region confirmed the strange phenomenon. Whether it has anything to do with the Dyatlov incident is of course a big fat unknown.

What did happen? We don’t know, and probably never will. All current theories seem to have been disproved. While someone might initially say to themselves, “it was obviously drugs,” that wasn’t the case either. Nothing like that was found in the remains of the tent, not even a drop of alcohol. The group even refused to smoke cigarettes while on their hike. This mystery is one for the record books.

Should We Take Another Look At the Rosenberg Espionage Trial?

The conspiracy surrounding the Rosenbergs wasn’t simple. Only a few weeks after the Korean War broke out, arrests were made on the grounds that Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg conspired to commit espionage. That was the charge, but the reality was less murky: the couple was tried, convicted, and eventually executed three years later after allegedly providing the recipe for an atomic bomb to one of America’s greatest rivals, the USSR.

The funny thing about a conspiracy charge is this: no one has to prove beyond any doubt that you did something wrong in court. So how exactly was the couple tried and found guilty when the punishment would be death for treason? Easy. The government found witnesses who would testify to the wrongdoing of the defendants. Who, though, would know of such wrongdoing? Ethel’s brother and his wife, as it turns out. The government charged them both with conspiracy to commit espionage as well, and then allowed the couple to testify against the Rosenbergs in exchange for a softer sentence.

We know now that the U.S. had evidence that Julius ran errands as a courier for the Soviets, and also helped them recruit. Did the Rosenbergs give plans to build the atom bomb, jet propulsion engines, sonar, and radar to the USSR? Many believe they did, while others believe they did not. They were certainly guilty of conspiracy, but to what extent–and why did that matter so little at the time in the court of public opinion?

This case is important because it aids in several important discussions regarding something we’re supposed to believe in as Americans: that is, you’re innocent until proven guilty. The Rosenberg case told us exactly how these types of important, publicized cases should not play out. Although the government had a treasure trove of evidence that was not declassified until the USSR collapsed, almost no direct, tangible evidence linking the couple to any wrongdoing was made public during the trial and subsequent execution, causing a great number of people to defend the integrity of the couple.

Their children, for example, maintained the couple’s innocence until the files were declassified. Even then, they believed that the files pointed a finger more at Julius and less at his wife.

The trial also forced us to reconsider how to best employ the death penalty in any circumstance. Some might contend that Ethel’s role in the apparent espionage, however small or large it may have been, should not have required a lethal response maybe just a few less days at the beach. There are a great number of historians who contend that neither she nor her husband was deserving. There are others who adamantly suppose that the couple would never have been tried at all, had it not been for the rampant paranoia that plagued communities and social orders during the Cold War.

Today, the death penalty is still controversial–here in the U.S. anyway. The Rosenberg trial begs the question: is the death penalty ever really necessary? Is it truly a humane response to criminal activity if there is even a sliver of doubt concerning a person’s guilt or innocence? These are questions we will undoubtedly continue to ask ourselves in the foreseeable future. Maybe we should continue to analyze the Rosenberg espionage trial for that reason alone.

What Were The Nuremberg Trials And Why Were They Significant?

In Germany, the Nazi party held an annual rally in Nuremberg before the beginning of World War II. Many of the laws proposed and instituted during these rallies targeted Jews as a part of fundamental Nazi ideology, and they helped pave the way for the Holocaust to slowly unfold over the next decade. Many of the “Nuremberg Laws”–as they would come to be known–prevented anyone with Jewish blood from obtaining citizenship in the Reich, and made sexual relations between Jews and “pure-blooded” Germans a criminal offense. Over time, those of Jewish background all but lost most of the rights we hold universal and self-evident today.

It is only fitting then, that the trials which would crush Nazi war criminals under the fist of justice would take place in Nuremberg. They were carried out from the end of the war in 1945 until 1949 and were aptly named the Nuremberg Trials. The defendants of this trial were mostly former higher-ups in the Nazi party, including military officers, doctors, lawyers, industrialists, etc.

These trials were not only significant in their scope, but also because they were a cornerstone for the international laws that would eventually be drafted in order to prevent a recurrence of the atrocities of the Holocaust, most of which have persisted until today. They helped humanity recognize how these atrocities can occur, and who can legally be held accountable. In addition, it was only because of the Nuremberg Trials that an eventual international court was finally established in order to deal with proposed injustices as they occur throughout the world.

For many, these changes did not happen fast enough to make a difference.

It was not until December of 1942 that Allied leaders acknowledged the slaughter of the Jewish peoples who had resided throughout Europe at the time of Germany’s invasion–long, long after they already knew. It was at this time that they made public their intent to prosecute those responsible for the proposed crimes against humanity.

Perhaps a surprise to no one, Joseph Stalin suggested that up to 100,000 German officers be executed. Even Winston Churchill tossed about the idea of summarily executing certain members of the Nazi party. American leaders rejected these ideas outright, although probably not for the reasons we might invoke today. Instead, they believed the best way to avoid scrutiny of the executions in the future was to try those whose guilt was already certain. That way, evidence could be collected and cataloged for future generations who might otherwise judge those who put the men to death as equally guilty.

Although there was a precedent for trying military officers and political leaders for war crimes on a much smaller scale in regional conflicts that occur in one country or another, there were certainly no precedents available for trying such a great number of people accused of international crimes against humanity. The London Charter of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) helped draft the laws which would then govern the Nuremberg Trials. This charter helped categorize crimes based on what occurred. If you violated a peace treaty, you could be charged with a crime against peace. If you violated already-established customs or laws that typically govern war, you could be charged with a war crime. If you were guilty of murder, you could be charged with a crime against humanity.

These first steps were those that inspired the Geneva Conventions that we still use to govern international law today–and hopefully will into the future.

Aileen Wuornos: The Monster

“The Monster” is quite the appropriate nickname for Aileen Wuomos. While she was indeed evil, and there was no excuse for her actions, there was a clear time in her life where her evil was created, much like many fictional monsters throughout history.

Wuornos’ background is just about as harrowing as one could possibly be. She never met her father (he was charged with sex crimes against children and hanged himself in prison), was abandoned by her mother, sold herself for food and drugs at the age of 11, got sexually assaulted by her grandfather, was pregnant by 14, dropped out of school at 15, and lived in the woods as a prostitute to support herself.

The mental makeup of any person would be extremely distorted after what happened to Wuornos. Unfortunately, however, she responded about as negatively as one could to that terrible situation. She was arrested for a DUI when she was 18 and escaped the authorities by moving to Florida, where she married a 69-year-old man. Her brother then passed away, and she burned her $10,000 inheritance in less than two months.

After being arrested for armed robbery, she was arrested for car theft, where police found extra ammunition and a loaded gun below the driver’s seat of her stolen car. This was not enough to lock her up for good, however, as she met her soulmate, Tyria Moore, at a gay bar a few months later.

After teaming up with Moore, Wuornos turned to prostitution to provide for them. This is where her murders started. Wuornos murdered seven people, all of whom she claimed were in the process of raping her after they hired her as a prostitute. The victims of criminal activity included a store owner, a rodeo worker, a sausage salesman, and a security guard.

Wuornos and Moore stole the car of Peter Siems, a victim of The Monster’s crimes. When they were in an accident, their likenesses were reported to the authorities, and they were arrested for his murder, along with the murder of several others. In exchange for immunity, Moore was able to persuade Wuornos to confess for her crimes.

Although Wuornos confessed, she stressed that she only murdered men who were attempting to rape her. She was found guilty for sixth death sentences, as Siems’ body was never found, so she was not found guilty of his death. Wuornos was the tenth woman executed in the United States since 1976.