Barbara Howard: This is All Things Considered, I'm Barbara Howard. Ninety years ago today, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti — Italian immigrants — had been arrested in 1920, accused of taking part in an armed robbery where two men died. For seven years, their case wound through the state's courts, attracting international attention. Sacco and Vanzetti ultimately were executed in the early morning hours — 90 years ago today — Aug. 23, 1927. The book "Sacco and Vanzetti" lays out the case. It is written by historian Bruce Watson, who's on the line. Thanks for joining us.

Bruce Watson: Well, thank you for having me.

Howard: So first, tell me a bit about who Sacco and Vanzetti were.

Watson: They were, I think, uniquely fascinating men, and it's why this case endures so much. They were, on the surface, two ordinary Italian immigrants. But Sacco was both a very mild-mannered shoemaker, but he was also quite a fierce anarchist, and Vanzetti was a much more delightful, intellectual, self-taught man who wrote poetry and read everything he could get his hands on … great with children, roamed around the world and around America. They're very interesting men on their own.

Howard: Here they were, two immigrants living in Massachusetts from Italy. The case, though, really got started in 1920 in Braintree — that's where the armed robbery happened. Tell me about it.

Watson: Well it was the afternoon of April 15th, in 1920, and two payroll masters were bringing $15,000 in cash through the streets in small envelopes. And all of a sudden, two men who had been seen around town all day jumped on them and shoved them down and gunned them down. Moment later, a car came out of the shadows and up the street, and they jumped in and went around the corner and they were gone.

Howard: How is it, then, that Sacco and Vanzetti came to be accused of this crime?

Watson: Well this crime, which shocked the whole area, was the study of an intense investigation, and they traced the car — what looked like the getaway car — to a garage in a town nearby and they staked out that garage. This was a couple of weeks later, now. And Sacco and Vanzetti came for the car and then they decided on that night, they didn't want to take it, they didn't like the way they were being watched. So they were on their way home on a streetcar, and police stopped the streetcar and arrested them, and their pictures were on the front page the next day, and they were under arrest for murder.

Howard: Now Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian. It was not a very popular immigrant group back in 1920. And they also, as you said, were politically active as anarchists at the time of the crime. So talk about that.

Watson: They seemed to have everything going against them as far as a jury would be concerned. First of all, they were Italian, and I really think that was a bigger factor. Italian immigrants were fairly new to Boston, been around maybe 20 or 30 years. There was already an image in the popular mind of mafia and gangsters, and the Italians were deeply resented and there were a lot of stereotypes about that. And so they fit that mold of a gangster. And then secondly, they were anarchists. And anarchists were the terrorists of their time. There had been all sorts of bombings that were attributed to anarchists, including some that Sacco and Vanzetti may have been involved in — midnight bombings, other types of bombings of courthouses, and things like that. So once it became known in the trial that they were anarchists, their goose was really cooked.

Howard: OK, now they were convicted in 1921, but then it was six years before they were executed. Why was it so long?

Watson: There was a series of appeals waged at the state level, and their lawyer, Fred Moore, was not a particularly good lawyer, but he was very good at keeping the case alive. And the appeals took a while to go through the court. They went through the same judge. He had some years where he was ill. They eventually went to the state Supreme Court and in every case along the way, the conviction was upheld despite numerous, numerous things that today, would instantly get you a second trial.

Howard: Like what?

Watson: Some of the witnesses recanted. Some of them were found to have extremely shady backgrounds. One of the state police who had originally said that one of the bullets found in one of the guards sort of fit the description of a bullet test fired through Sacco’s gun later claimed he never meant to imply that at all. There were all sorts of things that had to do with the judge whose bias became known over the years that he hated anarchists, absolutely despised them ... [he] told reporters at lunch time during the trial, he said ‘Wait until you see what I do to those anarchists in my courtroom.’ He was extremely biased and it went on for several years. Meanwhile, it was becoming a worldwide case. There were protests around the world as this was going on.

Howard: What did happen, then, after Sacco and Vanzetti were executed?

Watson: Well after they were executed, the case remained in popular culture and popular conscience for about 40 or 50 years until people began to fade and die out, but there was a great deal of remorse, everywhere except Boston. Almost everybody in Boston really felt they that had done the right thing, that they'd stuck by the Commonwealth, [that] the original jury verdict was valid, and Sacco and Vanzetti had been given every chance, every chance for appeal. But around the world, there was a great deal of repercussion. There were protests at embassies the next day, and then for a little while, there were some bombings, some anarchist bombings. And then it entered the culture — in plays, there were a couple of movies, songs — Joan Baez wrote a song about it much later. It became sort of a blot on the American conscience. And to this day, no one is quite sure whether they were guilty or not. I have my opinion, others have their opinion, but they're still on trial in many ways and people are reviewing the evidence, even now.

Howard: It should be noted, too, that in 1977, on the 50th anniversary of the execution, then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis declared Sacco and Vanzetti had been unfairly tried. Now, you say you have your opinion. What do you think? Were they innocent or guilty?

Watson: I have to say that first of all, I believe without a doubt they deserved a second trial. I think that there are some amount of evidence that would implicate Sacco, almost none against Vanzetti. However, there is a massive amount of doubts and much greater amount of doubt about the case for both men. And so, if there is such a thing as a reasonable doubt, there was far more than a reasonable doubt that they were guilty, so I believe they're innocent.

Howard: But we'll never really know, will we?

Watson: I'm afraid not. There was an old Harvard professor who said he hoped that there would be an afterlife so that we could finally know the truth about the Sacco and Vanzetti case.

Howard: OK. Thanks for joining us, Mr. Watson.

Watson: Thank you.

Howard: That's historian Bruce Watson. He is the author of the book "Sacco and Vanzetti." Today marks the 90th anniversary of the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. This is All Things Considered.