Almost 64 years after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sent to the electric chair, a team of investigators from Seton Hall Law School in Newark uncovered a document showing that Ethel, a Jewish woman with two small sons, was executed wrongfully.
Heading the investigation was a law professor who believed anti-Semitism was partly behind the prosecution and punishment of the Rosenbergs. The couple was executed in 1953 on charges of conspiring against the United States by providing classified material on the country’s nuclear program to the Soviet Union.
The Seton Hall team unearthed a one-page memo written on July 17, 1950, from FBI special agent A.H. Belmont to D. Milton Ladd, assistant to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. It relayed the findings of Assistant Attorney General James McInerney, who wrote that “there is insufficient evidence to issue process against her at the time.”
The memo added, “Mr. McInerney requested that any additional information concerning Ethel Rosenberg…might be possible to utilize her as a lever against her husband.”
In other words, prosecutors and FBI agents knew that evidence against Ethel was not strong enough to warrant putting her on trial. Nonetheless, the FBI urged prosecutors to threaten her with the death penalty unless she agreed to betray her husband. She stood fast in her refusal to do so and was put to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison on June 19, 1953.
“The reason for her prosecution seems clear: Ethel was executed because she refused to cooperate with the government to help convict her husband,” said Mark Denbeaux, the Seton Hall law professor who shepherded 25 of his students through a three-year review of the case. “Ethel was merely a pawn used for leverage in the government’s attempt to build a case against Julius Rosenberg.”
Their findings were published on Dec. 21.
Many scholars familiar with the case believe that anti-Semitism played a role in their prosecution, even suggesting it was a reason for their being electrocuted on a Friday night. Among them is Denbeaux, a Protestant whose opinion was strongly influenced by his father, a Presbyterian chaplain in World War II. The elder Denbeaux returned home keenly attuned to Jewish suffering after taking part in the liberation of two concentration camps. “My father never talked about combat,” said the professor, “only about the camps.”
When the Rosenbergs were arrested in 1950 for conspiracy to commit espionage, the professor’s father was skeptical of their guilt. “I grew up believing from him that they were both innocent and wouldn’t have been executed if it wasn’t for anti-Semitism. My dad saw anti-Semitism in many places,” he said.
One longstanding theory is that several Jews were given prominent roles in order to dispel the notion that officials’ motivation for pursuing the case was related to anti-Semitism. Noting that the judge in the case, Irving R. Kaufman, was a Jew, as were prosecutor Irving Saypol and his deputy, Roy Cohn, Denbeaux said his father believed their presence spoke volumes. “If you didn’t think religion mattered, why would you make sure the judge, the prosecutors, and the investigators were all Jews?” he asked.
Intrigued by the case, Denbeaux tasked his students in 2013 to start digging into 250,000 pages of testimony and evidence relating to the investigation, trial, and execution of the Rosenbergs, who were convicted of joining in a conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act of 1917.
Their alleged accomplices were Ethel’s brother and sister-in-law, David and Ruth Greenglass. Originally David told the FBI his sister had no involvement in the plot. Then he changed his testimony to implicate Ethel so his own wife would not be indicted. In 1996, he confessed to lying under oath, telling a New York Times reporter, “My wife is more important to me than my sister.”
Greenglass served 15 years in prison for his role in the alleged spy ring. His wife never spent a day behind bars.
“What’s revelatory is the government, the FBI, admitted it,” said Denbeaux. “It is one thing to say we want her to roll over, but it is another to say, ‘We’ve got nothing on her but we can use her as leverage.’ I can see that to be the significant statement in that memo.
“The government did not believe she was guilty and executed her anyway. That seems to me to be a dramatic, shocking fact. How often do you have people in the government say, ‘We’ve really got to hammer her to make her talk?’”
The law students wrote that what is known is that “even though Ruth and David played much larger roles in the conspiracy than Ethel, it was Ethel who was sent to the electric chair, while David received a 15-year sentence, and Ruth walked away without ever being indicted. That supports the theory that the government only actively prosecuted Ethel to obtain a confession, and cooperation, from her husband.”
Amanda Frankel, a third-year law student from South Orange who worked on the study, said that although she feels that Ethel’s execution was unjustified, she doesn’t consider it a result of anti-Semitism. “I just associated it with anti-communism,” she said.
Her work on the project taught her of the importance of attention to detail and that missing information “is out there if you really look for it.”
After years of insisting on their parents’ innocence, the Rosenbergs’ sons, Robert and Michael, acknowledged in 2008 that their father had a hand in the spy ring. Now the sons, who changed their last name to Meeropol in honor of their adoptive parents, are continuing the campaign to have their mother vindicated.
In a Dec. 23 interview on National Public Radio, Robert Meeropol asked President Barack Obama to declare Ethel’s trial to be “a perversion of the judicial process. Any sort of verdict on that situation was unjustified. The sentence was wrongful, and the whole trial should essentially be nullified.”
Said Michael, “The government took her as a hostage and killed her. And we would like the government to acknowledge that.”