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Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell: 1951

Appeals Extended Two Years

The executions were stayed pending appeal. In February 1952, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case, with Justice Hugo L. Black dissenting. December brought a motion for a new trial based on the contentions that photographer Schneider had committed perjury and Saypol had conducted an unfair trial. The motion was denied.

A motion to reduce the sentences as "cruel and excessive" because the charge was not treason and the indictments did not include "intent to injure the U.S." was denied.

In January, the executions were stayed again pending review by President Harry Truman of a petition for clemency. After Truman left office January 20, President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused clemency. Meantime, the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case had mounted a worldwide effort to save them. It filled an eight-car train that took protesters from New York City to Ossining, where the Rosenbergs sat in Sing Sing's death row. Three million letters and telegrams flooded the White House. Pope Pius XII twice appealed for clemency. Albert Einstein and atomic scientist Harold C. Urey appealed.

A third execution date was stayed as appeals for clemency poured in from around the world. With Justices Black and William 0. Douglas dissenting, the Supreme Court again refused to review the case. New evidence on June 8—the discovery of the missing console table in the apartment of Julius Rosenberg's mother—failed to justify a new trial or a stay of execution.

The Supreme Court again refused to review the case or stay the execution. Then, on June 17, Justice Douglas, questioning whether the defendants were correctly tried under the Espionage Act of 1917, granted a stay. The next day, Eisenhower received clemency appeals from hundreds of organizations representing millions of people in Europe, while U.S. embassies mounted police cordons to hold back the crowds, and the Supreme Court was recalled from vacation into unprecedented session. With Black, Douglas, and Felix M. Frankfurter dissenting, it vacated the Douglas stay. Eisenhower rejected another clemency plea.

The Rosenbergs ware executed precisely at sundown on June 19, 1953. That night, New York's Union Square filled with 10,000 protesters, while throngs in capitals around the world expressed their shock.

For decades after their execution, the guilt of the Rosenbergs remained a topic for discussion in books, newspapers, and magazines. However, in the mid-1990s most of the doubts about Julius Rosenberg's guilt were finally put to rest. In 1997, Alexander Feklisov, a retired KGB colonel, said that Julius Rosenberg served as an undercover agent for the Soviets between 1943 and 1946. Feklisov also said that Rosenberg had recruited other spies for the Soviets. Indeed, he even called Rosenberg a hero of the Soviet Union and "a true revolutionary who was willing to sacrifice himself for his beliefs." Feklisov added, however, that as far as he knew, Ethel Rosenberg was not an active agent for the Soviet Union. Despite Feklisov's claims about Ethel Rosenberg, many feel that her reluctance to acknowledge her husband's role as a Soviet spy still made her compliant in his espionage.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

De Toledano, Ralph. The Greatest Plot in History. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1963.

Fineberg, S. Andhill. The Rosenberg Case: Fact and Fiction. New York: Oceana, 1952.

Gardner, Virginia. The Rosenberg Story. New York: Masses and Mainstream, 1954.

Kramer, Hilton. "N.Y. Times Still Trying to Minimize Rosenbergs' Role as Soviet Spies." Human Events (May 16, 1997): 14.

Goldstein, Alvin H. The Unquiet Death of Julius & Ethel Rosenberg. New York: Lawrence Hill, 1975.

Hyde, H. Montgomery. The Atom Bomb Spies. New York: Atheneum, 1980.

Meeropol, Robert and Michael Meeropol. We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1975.

Nizer, Louis. The Implosion Conspiracy. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1973.

Pilat, Oliver. The Atom Spies. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1952.

Radosh, Ronald, and Joyce Milton. The Rosenberg File. A Search for the Truth. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983.

Reuben, William A. The Atom Spy Hoax. New York: Action Books, 1955.

Schneir, Walter and Miriam Schneir. Invitation to an Inquest. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1965.

Sharlit, Joseph H. Fatal Error. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989.

Sharp, Malcolm P. Was Justice Done? The Rosenberg-Sobell Case. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1956.

Sobell, Morton. On Doing Time. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974.

Wexley, John. The Judgment of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. New York: Ballantine, 1977.

Whitehead, Don. The FBI Story: A Report to the People. New York: Random House, 1956.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell: 1951 - Invited To Engage In Espionage, Prosecution Witnesses Provide Details, A Jell-o Box Cut In Two