Book Review: A Woman Condemned: The Tragic Case of Anna Antonio
After reading the title of this book, it may seem as if this historical overview of a 1930’s crime intends to exonerate the titular defendant. As the story progresses, however, James M. Greiner makes it clear that he is not declaring Anna Antonio an innocent woman, but he is suggesting that that her case– and the system that convicted her– deserves to receive more critical scrutiny.
Salvatore “Sam” Antonio was violently attacked and fatally injured on Easter 1932. Sam Antonio did not have a reputation for being a model citizen or a loyal and supportive husband, and when he died, his wife Anna did not grieve publicly. This sparked the suspicions of certain members of law enforcement, and when a pair of career criminals were eventually arrested for the crime, Anna was similarly tried for employing them to murder her husband.
Given the book’s title and official description, it is not really a giveaway to reveal that Anna was convicted and sentenced to death for the crime. Most of the latter portions of the book are devoted to the ultimately unsuccessful attempts to get her sentence overturned or lessened. Though readers know the final outcome, Greiner manages to make the appeals process read like a legal thriller. At one point, one of Anna Antonio’s stays of execution was almost quite literally a last-minute reprieve. Notably, the uncertainty played a toll on Anna Antonio and those around her, and one of the strengths of Greiner’s prose is how certain characters are developed and portrayed during the most trying years of their lives.
A Woman Condemned subtly but firmly emphasizes the problems that arise from first impressions, how people impose their own imagined reactions onto other people, and how alternative emotional responses may be seen as inappropriate or suspect. We all see the world through not just our own experiences, but our own emotional lenses. I am sure that fifty different people can read this book and fill a spectrum of differing conclusions about Anna Antonio’s ultimate culpability.
Notably, Greiner does not come down firmly on the side of Anna Antonio’s innocence– or guilt. He does indicate that there were severe flaws in the trial process (all three defendants should not have been tried together), and that prejudice against Italian-Americans may have played a part in her prosecution. Yet as Greiner sifts through the decades of reactions to the case, he suggests that perhaps she was completely innocent, quite possibly she played a lesser role in her husband’s death than authorities insisted, and there’s a chance she was as guilty as she was charged of being. Still, an analysis of the evidence reveals doubts, which covers this whole saga with a thick layer of discomforting metaphorical fog.
In the end, the characters who earned my deepest sympathies were the three Antonio children, who were separated by gender and raised by different relatives. Details will not be provided so as to avoid spoilers, but the ensuing custody battle and the treatment of some of the Antonio children received makes it clear that whatever readers think about Anna Antonio’s culpability, the children were truly innocent victims of not only the mental and emotional anguish inflicted by the criminal justice process, but also a crude and ultimately unjust family court system. As the readers discover the fates of the Antonio children, they become not just worthy of sympathy, but also deep and genuine respect for the way they played out the terrible hand that was dealt to them.
A Woman Condemned provides few conclusive answers about the trial, but while readers’ intellectual curiosity may not be fully sated, the presentation of the labyrinthine early twentieth-century legal system requires those who study the book to think long and hard about how the system dispenses justice, and what unintended consequences result from extended criminal trials. Greiner argues that we cannot be certain of Anna Antonio’s guilt or innocence, but the process that led to her execution was severely flawed.
A Woman Condemned: The Tragic Case of Anna Antonio
By James M. Greiner
Kent State University Press