SACCO & VANZETTI: The Case Resolved. By Francis Russell. Harper & Row. 288 pp. $16.95.

FRANCIS RUSSELL's writings on the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case are part of what appears to be a growing genre of "personal revisionism" about controversial criminal cases. The formula goes something like this. A liberal believer in the dogma of the defendant's innocence starts to write a book that will conclusively establish what all right-thinking people believe -- that the defendant was the innocent victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice. While writing the book, the author solicits and/or accepts assistance from the defendant or his strongest supporters, who are under the impression that he is on their side. But, lo and behold, after reviewing the files of the case, a sudden insight strikes: the defendant is really guilty. Commitment to principles of truth and justice requires the born-again disbeliever to disclose the sad reality. The book is then marketed with an emphasis on the enhanced credibility of the author, because he wanted so badly to believe in innocence, but had no choice other than to follow the facts.

Other books that seem to fit this formula -- albeit with variations -- include: The Rosenberg File, by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton; Fatal Vision, by Joe McGinnis; and Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case, by Allen Weinstein.

Sacco and Vanzetti: the Case Resolved reflects "personal revisionism" at the extreme. The author assures us that when he began work on his first book about the case -- Tragedy in Dedham, published in 1962 -- he "took for granted the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti and the villainy of the prosecution." But by the time he had finished he "found (him)self facing in the opposite direction." Tragedy in Dedham made the case for Sacco's guilt and Vanzetti's complicity. It became the bible of the verdict's defenders.

Why then did Russell bother to write yet another book about the case nearly a quarter of a century later? His answer is that at the time he wrote his first book he had "accepted" the guilt of Sacco and the complicity of Vanzetti, "but there had never been irrefutable proof with which to confront the embattled partisans." Now he had finally found that irrefutable proof. He had heard "the last word." As his arrogant title proclaims, the case was finally "resolved." The purpose of this book is to close minds, not to encourage debate. But only the closed-minded will be satisfied with Russell's resolution. Whatever else may be said about his new evidence, it is most certainly not the last word. Indeed, another recently published book on the case -- Postmortem by William Young and David Kaiser -- comes to a conclusion diametrically opposite from Russell's. And William Shannon, in reviewing that book (Book World, January 26), concluded that Postmortem "may bring to a close six decades of controversy." Shannon and Russell cannot both be right. In fact, they are both wrong. The end of the Sacco-Vanzetti case is not in sight.

The source of Russell's "last word" purports to be a "voice from beyond the grave." He is not referring to some spirit or ghost, but rather to the statement of a man named Ideale Gambera, whose father had apparently been a fellow anarchist along with Sacco and Vanzetti around the time of the killings in South Braintree and the trial in Dedham. The voice from beyond the grave -- the "key to the enigma that had persisted for two generations without a resolution" -- was that of Giovanni Gambera, who died in 1982. His son Ideale was now ready to tell the "truth." And Francis Russell was all too prepared to listen and believe. Suspending the admirable skepticism he expressed when evaluating the claims of the Sacco-Vanzetti partisans, Russell accepts the Gambera hearsay without question. And hearsay it is -- of a particularly unreliable variety. Indeed, it resembles the old game of "post office" we used to play as kids, wherein one kid would whisper a secret to another, who would whisper it to another; by the time it reached its destination, the "secret" had become so distorted as barely to resemble its orginal form.

THE POST OFFICE route taken by this "secret" goes something like this: Ideale Gambera says that his father Giovanni Gambera "was with the Sacco and Vanzetti case from its beginning but is never mentioned simply because that is the way he wished it." (Indeed, Russell -- who had researched the case thoroughly -- says that when he first saw the envelope with the Gambera name on it, it was "no one I had ever heard of. Another crackpot letter.") Ideale claims in his letter that his father "was always the most astute and intelligent thinker of them alnd that he knew the truth about the case, but was "tenaciously prepared to carry the weight of the secret to the grave." The secret was -- in the words of Ideale -- that "Everyone (in the Boston anarchist circle) knew that Sacco was guilty and that Vanzetti was innocent as far as the actual participation in the killing." (The brackets and author's substitution are from the book. It is quite remarkable that a writer would tamper with the original text of his central source, without disclosing the actual words used by the writer of the letter.)

The letter goes on to relate other gossip, much of which Russell knows is unfounded. For example, the letter accepts as gospel the claim that the district attorney who prosecuted the case had "proposed that he would guarantee Sacco and Vanzetti's deportation . . . back to Italy . . . if he were given $35,000 cash." Indeed the letter claims that Ideale's father was the only member of the anarchist committee who voted to accept the offer. But elsewhere in the book, Russell assures us that "there happens to be no truth in" the allegation that the D.A. offered to sell the case. The letter also mentions that Ideale's mother remembers the "horrendous scandal of Rosina Sacco's torrid affair with another man during the last few years of the case" and "for added color" the fact that the defense attorney "was an inveterate cocaine addict" who was supplied by his drug-dealing father.

The letter has all the hallmarks of gossip, especially the central claim which begins with "Everyone (in the Boston anarchist) circle knew . . . "

Eventually, Russell traveled to California to interview Ideale (but apparently not his mother, who he says is "still alive and alert and has always substantiated all my father recounted"). During the course of the interview he came upon some notes (apparently undated). Russell gives the reader only those portions of the notes which purport to support his theory, implying that other parts might undercut it. For example, there is apparently some confusing reference in the notes to Celestino Madeiros, the man who claimed that it was he, and not Sacco and Vanzetti, who had committed the South Braintree crime. We don't know what Gambera says about Madeiros, except that he "sometimes confused time sequences, mentioning, for example, that Madeiros had already been sentenced before the DeFalco incident (involving the alleged selling of the case), whereas he did not commit his holdup- murder until four years later." Quite a confusion! But the advocate Russell attributes this confusion to Gambera's "old age" at the time he wrote his undated notes.

Nor do we ever learn how Giovanni Gambera learned his secret. There is no suggestion that either Sacco or Vanzetti -- or the others who participated in the holdup-murder -- confessed to him. The closest we come is that "Everyone in the Boston anarchist circle knew . . . " But Russell acknowledges that this is not true: not everyone in that circle "knew" that Sacco was guilty. For example, a man named Carlo Tresca who, according to Russell "remained the most conspicuous anarchist in the United States," firmly believed that Sacco was innocent until at least 1941. "The inescapable conclusion," according to Russell, "is that at this point Tresca himself did not know." If "Everyone in the Boston anarchist circle knew," it would be inconceivable that "the most conspicuous anarchist in the United States" would remain ignorant, for 20 years.

THE MOST likely "truth" is that some anarchists believed Sacco guilty, others believed him innocent, and many did not care. It was the cause that was important during the 1920s. In later years, the anarchist movement fell apart and people remembered what their new-found politics -- or lack thereof -- inclined them to remember. It is no surprise, for example, that several of those who later "remembered" that Sacco was guilty had become born-again conservatives in the interim.

The important point is that cases like Sacco and Vanzetti rarely become "resolved." There is no last word, end of the road or closed book. A case that was conceived, born and nurtured in a highly political climate can never become de-politicized. Too many people have too much at stake in a particular version of the truth. Nor should the public be misled by authors' claims of neutrality, especially authors who have already committed their reputations to a particular version of truth.

Russell's bottom-line conclusions -- that Sacco was guilty and Vanzetti complicitous -- are certainly plausible, but his methodology -- his selective skepticism -- is indefensible, except for a committed advocate. He repeatedly condemns evidence that contradicts his "truth" as "hearsay, two or three times removed," or self-serving. But he accepts as "the truth" the triple (at least!) hearsay account of a loyal son purporting to recount the confused ramblings of a dead man's "old age" secret. Indeed, Russell seems to treat the Gambera letter as a sacrament, carrying a photostat around in his pocket for all to see and be cleansed of their doubts.

Russell recounts other evidence supportive of Sacco's guilt and Vanzetti's complicity, but the underlying credibility of the book is shattered by his undue reliance on the Gambera hearsay.

This ill-conceived book proves one truth: there is no one more willing to accept dogma uncritically than the convert.