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Holding court

A Sacco and Vanzetti reenactment highlights 150th celebration

Law Day at Norfolk Superior Courthouse Lawyers, court officers, and others filled a courtroom at Norfolk Superior Courthouse in Dedham on Law Day earlier this month. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / May 17, 2009

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It took four days and two sewing machines, but Norfolk Superior Court assistant clerk Diane Gibbons had become the picture of 1860s elegance by the time she led her first tour of the courthouse in Dedham, hoop skirt and all.

Specially trained by local historians, Gibbons and seven other court employees stepped back in time recently to staff an open house at their workplace, one of many events celebrating the Massachusetts Superior Court system's 150th anniversary.

The year is packed with commemorations, including a standout this Tuesday when defense attorneys, a county prosecutor, and a judge reenact a portion of the most famous trials to take place in this soaring, multistyled hall of justice in Dedham, which predates the state system by 32 years.

Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convicted here of robbery and murder in 1921 in the deaths of two Braintree shoe company employees. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed by electric chair in 1927.

As part of the reenactment, the steel cage in which Sacco and Vanzetti and thousands of other defendants were held in handcuffs during their trials has been returned to the court house after a 50-year retirement. The door from Sacco's jail cell is also on display.

"The presumption of innocence really went out the door in those days," said First Assistant Clerk Mary Hickey, who has served the court for several decades and seen balance restored to the scales of justice in recent years.

Shutters that still hang inside courtroom windows were used in the earliest days to prevent drive-by shootings, she said. And litigants often waited in local taverns and barrooms for a case to be called. "When you think about it, we've come a long way," said Hickey.

Superior Court Chief Justice Barbara J. Rouse says the anniversary events around the state humanize a legal system that, with 82 judges sitting in 14 counties, is one of the oldest common law trial courts of general jurisdiction in the country.

"We didn't want it to be an inward-looking event," she said. "Education is our objective."

A committee in each county has drawn its communities in with school outreach, exhibitions, displays, and discussions about the court's history and purpose.

With 55 employees today, including more than two dozen in the clerk's office, five court reporters, 18 court officers, five judges, and a judicial secretary, the Norfolk Superior Court is one of the busiest in the state. Last year, the court saw 2,367 new civil case entries and 470 on the criminal side; the court disposed 2,465 civil cases and 363 criminal cases.

Judge Thomas A. Connors, who chairs the Norfolk County committee in Dedham, said the Sacco and Vanzetti reenactment was too good to pass up, given a ready-made script written by retired judge Maurice Richardson, who will be the narrator.

"There will be vignettes that give a flavor of the case," Connors said, and brief closing arguments by the other performers.

Plans for Tuesday are "ambitious" but effective for a full view of the court system, Connors said. "We see jurors every day come in the door anxious and leave relieved after sitting through a trial. But this is a way, on a larger scale, to get across what we do, and the value of it."

The Massachusetts Bar Foundation and judges of the Superior Court helped fund these events.

Sacco and Vanzetti's saga will probably always prompt speculation over whether justice was served, spurring at the time claims of nativism and xenophobia. In 1977, 50 years after their executions, then-Governor Michael S. Dukakis issued a proclamation that the two men had been treated unjustly and "any disgrace should be forever removed from their names."

That produced a firestorm of conflict, and Dukakis later said he regretted not reaching out to the families of the victims first.

"Good or bad, it is the case everyone should know about," Hickey said. "People talk about it, study it."

In the reenactment, defense attorneys John McGlone and William Sullivan will face off against Norfolk prosecutor Greg Connor. Judge Paul Chernoff will preside.

Because of limited seating, local cable television will offer a live feed into another courtroom and later broadcast the reenactment on TV.

McGlone quipped that he keeps trying to come up with a defense that might actually alter history, "but it's not working out.

"Our position is the two Italians were railroaded, and this is the death penalty we're talking about," he said. "We know the outcome, but it's still exciting to be involved in a part of history."

During the actual trial, it took seven days to pick the all-male jury, causing court officers to resort to pulling in men from the street. Women weren't allowed to serve on juries until 1950.

Connor was keeping it light as he prepared for his performance as prosecutor. "I think this is the only case I can actually win in this courthouse," he said, jokingly.

Here, the prosecutorial role is somewhat dubious, he said, because of the "hue and cry" that the defendants were denied a fair trial. Plus like the defense, Connor must boil down a four-hour closing argument to 10 minutes.

"I think the only thing I'll have time to do is say, 'Find them guilty,' and sit down," he said.

For Connor and others though, an added benefit of their involvement has been discovering trivia about the case, and the courthouse.

The same may be said for Gibbons and her colleagues.

They learned, for example, that the original courthouse bell was made by Paul Revere and is currently housed at the Dedham Historical Society. And contrary to popular belief, no one was ever hanged inside the Greek- and Roman-styled structure's dome.

Hangings did take place, but in a barn at the nearby jail called "the Dedham gallows." A beam from the county's last hanging is on display, along with the cage and a 1950s police wagon.

Luminaries, including John Adams, practiced law in the Dedham court. And in 1990, contentious TV jurist Judge Joseph Wapner filmed two days of shows there.

A number of historical features remain in the 182-year-old courthouse, including marble courtroom clocks and the shells of 1920s-era phone booths, where reporters would line up to call in stories.

There's also the mysterious door sign that reads, "Ladies Retiring."

That, court officials say, was the polite way to say that behind the door was a place where a woman has "retired from the public contact to take care of private business."

"We have learned so much," said Gibbons. "I grew up in Dedham, and I never knew any of this."

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at mmbolton1@verizon.net.

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