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Monday, March 08, 2004  

Entertainment: "The Practice" does history

I complain about television as much as anyone. My prophylactic is to watch it sparingly. Most television, particularly network programs, has gone from vast wasteland to empty universe. But, when television is good, like the little girl in the ditty, it is very good. This week's episode of "The Practice" was very good. It was the remainder of a two-part series interrupted at least twice by other programming. So, one had to reacquaint oneself with what had happened previously to understand the plot. Alan Shore, "The Practice"'s current misanthropic trial lawyer, was defending a childhood friend in the murder of the man's mistress. That meant returning to his hometown in Massachusetts, Dedham. That small town has gone down in history as the place where Sacco and Vanzetti were convicted. Shore, like many a smart kid, is as much reviled as admired there. His friend, Paul Stewart (Patrick Dempsey) on the other hand, has overcome bias against those who do well to become a respected physician.

So far, so good. However, Shore is in even more trouble than usual. The defendant left blood, hair, and semen on the corpse. He was seen fleeing the woman's home near the time the murder occurred. He was running to his priest to confess . . . something. His wealthy mother has bribed the key witness not to testify -- a promise she breaks. Shore, who faces mediocre classmates from the past as his adversaries, has to come up with something to offset the circumstantial evidence that will surely convict his client. He decides his trump card is the case that made Dedham infamous.

At 3:00 P.M. on April 15,1920, a paymaster and his guard were carrying a factory payroll of $15,776 through the main street of South Braintree, Massachusetts, a small industrial town south of Boston. Two men standing by a fence suddenly pulled out guns and fired on them. The gunmen snatched up the cash boxes dropped by the mortally wounded pair and jumped into a waiting automobile. The bandit gang, numbering four or five in all, sped away, eluding their pursuers. At first this brutal murder and robbery, not uncommon in post-World War I America, aroused only local interest.

Three weeks later, on the evening of May 5, 1920, two Italians, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, fell into a police trap that had been set for a suspect in the Braintree crime. Although originally not under suspicion, both men were carrying guns at the time of their arrest and when questioned by the authorities they lied. As a result they were held and eventually indicted for the South Braintree crimes.

Vanzetti was also charged with an earlier holdup attempt that had taken place on December 24, 1919, in the nearby town of Bridgewater. These events were to mark the beginning of twentieth-century America's most notorious political trial.

My brows rose when I realized where the plot was going. Instead of keeping to the usual tenets of television shows about the law, the writers had decided to present a history lesson. That is a risky move. History, including relatively recent history, bores many Americans, who respond by not having a clue about most of it. For example, I am currently reading a blogger who apparently has never heard of the Southern Strategy -- the political machinations that moved most Southern white voters from the Democratic Party to the GOP. People do not like to reminded of their ignorance. By bringing up a historical case, be it the Snopes trial, Brown v. Board or Sacco and Vanzetti, the producers of "The Practice" were practically inviting viewers to switch channels to less taxing fare. The show soldiered on.

On April 9, 1927, after all recourse in the Massachusetts courts had failed, Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death. By then the dignity and the words of the two men had turned them into powerful symbols of social justice for many throughout the world. Public agitation on their behalf by radicals, workers, immigrants, and Italians had become international in scope, and many demonstrations in the world's great cities--Paris, London, Mexico City, Buenos Aires--protested the unfairness of their trial. This great public pressure, combined with influential behind-the-scenes interventions, finally persuaded the governor of Massachusetts, Alvan T. Fuller, to consider the question of executive clemency for the two men. He appointed an advisory committee, the "Lowell Committee," so-called because its most prominent member was A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard University. The committee, in a decision that was notorious for its loose thinking, concluded that the trial and judicial process had been just "on the whole" and that clemency was not warranted. It only fueled controversy over the fate of the two men, and Harvard, because of Lowell's role, became stigmatized, in the words of one of its alumni, as "Hangman's House." "Not every wop has the switch to the electric chair thrown by the president of Harvard."

Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on August 23, 1927, a date that became a watershed in twentieth-century American history. It became the last of a long train of events that had driven any sense of utopian vision out of American life. The workings of American democracy now seemed to many Americans as flawed and unjust as many of the older societies of the world, no longer embodying any bright ideal, but once again serving the interests of the rich and the powerful. American intellectuals were powerfully moved by the case.

Alan Shore argued that the citizens of his hometown had brought infamy on it by convicting innocent men of crimes for which they could die decades ago. Now, they had a chance not to make the same mistake. They could refuse to convict his client on the basis of inconclusive evidence. I fear real life jurors would respond to such an argument by dismissing it as bookish, the stuff of pointy-headed intellectuals. The guy had been doing the gal. He was seen leaving the scene of the crime. His clothes were soiled with her blood. Convict him.

The jurors on "The Practice" brought back a not guilty verdict. They could have been convinced by flaws in the prosecution's case, including a prematurely destroyed body and lack of a murder weapon. Or, they might have decided not to risk another wrongful conviction.

I believe it was daring of "The Practice"'s writers to produce a script that required viewers to do some thinking, including reconsidering one of the most intriguing cases in American jurisprudence.

By the way: The defendant did kill his mistress.

Note: I've learned that three small towns were involved in the Sacco and Vanzetti cases. They are Braintree, Bridgewater and Dedham. The convictions in the second, famous crime, occurred in Dedham.

Reasonably related

•Since the addition of the Alan Shore character to "The Practice," it is in danger of becoming the "James Spader Show." Learn more about the very capable actor here.

•Famous jurist Felix Frankfurter wrote about Sacco and Vanzetti for The Atlantic.

4:12 PM