Thursday, April 06, 2006


This article is about the Rosenberg couple who were sentenced to death for leaking nuclear secrets to USSR during second world war and the interesting book ‘The Implosion Conspiracy’ about this case. This book is written by Louis Nizer, who was a leading trial lawyer of America.

Today, with the fall of communist Soviet Union, it seems inconceivable, but the events described below did happen. It was not long ago - sometimes in the middle of the twentieth century. Ethel and Julius, the Rosenberg couple were executed for supplying atomic secrets to Russia. The first U.S. civilians to be put to death for espionage. Ethel is the first woman to be put to death by electric chair. The Rosenberg trial has all the masala of a Hindi film: love, hatred, betrayal and drama; except the end. The story of their trial has been immortalised by Louis Nizer (see Endnote-1), in the book ‘The Implosion Conspiracy’.

Julius Rosenberg was an Electrical Engineer and a member of the communist party. He was married to Sgt. David Greenglass's sister Ethel. During the Second World War scientists from all over the world except Russia had gathered at Los Alamos to develop the Atom bomb. This was the defence opted in offensive form. Hitler would have been invincible, had he made Atom bomb first. The army assigned David to the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos. He gave Rosenberg some data regarding nuclear weapons. This was passed on to the Russians. Klaus Fuchs was a leading Physicist at that time. He had come to Los Alamos (see Endnote-2) from England. After the war a file was discovered in Germany listing the names of communist spies. Klaus Fuchs was one of them. He was arrested. He confessed. His confession exposed other spies and theirs in turn the Rosenbergs and David.

The Rosenberg trial began on March 3, 1951. David Greenglass confessed to the crime. He was given 15 years of imprisonment, the other conspirators who stood trial were given 30 years each. But Rosenbergs were sentenced to death. David Greenglass was the chief witness for the prosecution. Not only he, but his wife Ruth and Ruth's sister gave evidence. They did not give evidence reluctantly but glorified in doing so. Many felt that they betrayed their own family. A brother destroyed his own sister. The entire trial was embroiled with emotional conflict. Was David subject of scorn or of pity? Was it betrayal on David's part? Or was it unfair use of him by the Rosenberg?

The defence had a problem. It's a perpetual dilemma for criminal trial court lawyers: to remain silent and forfeit the chance of denying the accusation or to testify and risk cross-examination. The Rosenbergs chose to testify. But the question remained, what position should they take in case they were cross-examined about being communist. One must not forget it was at a time when even the word `communist' was taboo in USA. Emmanuel Bloch and his father Alexander Bloch represented the Rosenbergs. The son thought that they should refuse to answer the question on the ground that the answer might incriminate them. This is guaranteed by the 5th amendment to the American Constitution. But the father who was more experienced thought that this plea though legally permissible, in practical effect, would be an admission of their being communists and is more damaging. But the lawyers did not take that decision. It was Julius Rosenberg who took the decision. He was certain that they should claim the privilege. It also raises a troubling question. Should a client be permitted to make strategic decisions? It was this decision that did more harm to Rosenbergs than any other. They became cruel victims of the McCarthy era. (see Endnote-3)

The trial court sentenced Rosenbergs to death on April 5, 1951. Thereafter on twenty-three different occasions applications for relief by way of appeal, review, Habeas Corpus, were filed before different courts. All were ultimately denied. The 21st application, the sixth before the Supreme Court of United States was dismissed unanimously on 15.6.1952, the last day of the term. It was then, with all hopes lost and two days for the execution, the most dramatic event in the Rosenberg case happened.

Two lawyers who were never engaged by the Rosenbergs and who had never met them, went to Justice Douglas’ residence to seek to stay the Rosenbergs' execution. He was packing his books and briefs for the summer vacation. They had a new point to present. The Rosenbergs were charged with a conspiracy starting from 1944-50. At the time the conspiracy started, the law provided for the death penalty. In 1946 while the alleged conspiracy was still under way, the law was amended so as to make the death penalty applicable, only in case the jury recommended it. In the Rosenbergs case the Jury had made no such recommendation. The trial court had proceeded on the ground that only the original Act was applicable. The question was analogous to the case in which while a thief was entering a house for theft, the punishment for burglary is reduced; which penalty then should be applied: the heavier or the lighter one?

Justice Douglas granted a stay eleven hours before the execution on June 17, 1953 and left by car for the Far West. Everyone except Chief Justice Vinson heaved a sigh of relief. He called a special term of the court the next day during the summer vacation to review the stay order. This had never happened before nor has happened since. The Court reconvened and by majority of six to three (Rosenberg Vs. US 346 US 271) vacated the stay order on June 19, 1953. On the same evening their mercy petition was dismissed and in the night they were executed.

In the last 40 years, it is often debated, were Rosenbergs guilty? This is a wrong question to ask. Probably there was sufficient evidence for jury, which heard and saw the witnesses to find them guilty. But their punishment was inappropriate. It shocked everyone. The world over ‘Save Rosenberg Committees’ were formed. There were demonstrations and appeals. Even Albert Einstein and the Pope had urged for clemency. Klaus Fuchs a leading physicist had confessed that it was he who had given away the secrets, which were passed on to the Russians. It could not be said with certainty that it was Rosenbergs who helped the Russians. And then, there were others, who were equally guilty, if not more so. If the others had not been given the death penalty then why should the Rosenbergs? But despite this Rosenbergs were executed. What was the real reason for the execution? Was it fear or revulsion or frenzy against Communism? May be, all of these.

Before I end a word about Emanuel Bloch, their lawyer. He died soon thereafter. The Rosenberg case killed him too. Louis Nizer has dedicated the book to ‘TRIAL LAWYERS, the civilised warriors for justice’. He says, ‘Bloch is the hero of the book. Because his dedication and emotional involvement in the case is a shining example of the lawyer in his noblest role. He became an Advocate in the classic sense whose hands were charged with electricity and his face ablaze with concern for his quivering client.’

Strange, one always thought lawyers should not be emotionally involved with their cases.

Endnote-1: His other interesting books are ‘My Life in Court’; ‘The Jury returns’; ‘Reflections without Mirror’.

Endnote-2: Los Alamos is a city of Los Alamos county, north central New Mexico, U.S., on the Pajarito Plateau (altitude: 2,225 m) of the Jemez Mountains. In 1942 it was chosen by the US government because of its comparative isolation and natural facilities as the location for the Atomic Research Laboratory then known as the Manhattan Project or Project Y, which developed the first nuclear-fission or A-bomb. After World War II, the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory later called Los Alamos National Laboratory developed the first thermonuclear-fusion H-bomb.

Endnote-3: Joseph Raymond McCarthy, a U.S. senator who dominated the early 1950s by his sensational but unproved charges of Communist subversion in high government circles; in a rare move on Dec. 2, 1954, he was officially censured for unbecoming conduct by his Senate colleagues thus ending the era of McCarthyism.
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