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Trial 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

Defendants: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell
Crime Charged: Conspiracy to commit wartime espionage
Chief Defense Lawyers: Alexander Bloch, Emanuel H. Bloch, Fyke Farmer, John Finerty and Daniel Marshall for the Rosenbergs; Edward Kuntz and Harold Phillips for Sobell
Chief Prosecutors: Roy M. Cohn, John Foley, James Kilsheimer Ill, Myles Lane, and Irving H. Saypol
Judge: Irving R. Kaufman
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trial: March 6-29, 1951
Verdict: Guilty
Sentences: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: Death by electrocution; Sobell: 30 years imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: The Rosenberg case, coming at the height of the anti-Communist hysteria in America, produced the harshest result possible: the deaths of two defendants who, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter put it, "were tried for conspiracy and sentenced for treason."

On September 23, 1949, four years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II, President Harry S. Truman announced that an atomic explosion had occurred in the Soviet Union. Until then, most Americans had been confident that the Soviets, allies in World War II but opponents in the Cold War that developed after 1946, could not make an atom bomb. The resulting hysteria found Americans digging basement bomb shelters and teaching schoolchildren how to duck under classroom desks.

The following February, a German-born nuclear physicist, Dr. Klaus Fuchs, who had worked in America's Manhattan Project developing the atom bomb, was arrested in England. In a "voluntary confession," he said he had transmitted atomic information to the Soviet Union. He was tried and sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment.

Meantime in America, former Communist spy Elizabeth Bentley told a federal grand jury that one Harry Gold had been her successor as liaison with the Soviets. Arrested on May 24, Gold confessed that he had served as courier in the United States between Klaus Fuchs and the Soviets' New York Vice Consul, Anatoli Yakovlev, in 1944 and 1945.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953