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Son of doomed couple advises audience at William Mitchell to fight against ‘guilt by association’

Rosenberg case still reverberating today

The son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage at the height of the anti-communist fervor of the McCarthy Era, had a warning for those assembled for his talk in St. Paul early last week: Beware of “guilt by association.”

Now a 61-year-old former corporate lawyer, Robert Meeropol, the youngest of the Rosenberg’s two children, addressed an audience of 40 or so mostly law students at William Mitchell College of Law on Oct. 7. (Both Meeropol and his older brother, Michael, took on the name of the couple who adopted them).

Meeropol told attendees that “guilt by association” is as dangerous now as it was back in 1953, when his parents were executed. He pointed to the situation at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where suspected terrorists are being held — some who are not terrorists at all — who have yet to be charged with a crime.

“There are several chilling comparisons between my parents’ case and the case of accused terrorisst today,” Meeropol said. “In my parents’ case, the government linked what they feared the most — the atomic bomb — with the people they feared the most — communists.

“Now, the government is linking what we fear the most — weapons of mass destruction — with the people we fear the most — Islamic fundamentalists.”

Meeropol and his brother — who were 10 and 6 when their parents died in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison — have spent a good part of their adult lives working to clear their parents’ names of the charges of passing on atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.

Meeropol left private law practice in 1990 and founded a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC), that he still leads today. According to its website, RFC “provides for the educational and emotional needs of children whose parents have been targeted as a result of progressive activities.”

Sept. 11 revelations

During his hour-long talk, Meeropol mentioned the RFC, but the primary reason he was back at William Mitchell, where he’d spoken earlier this year, was to address fresh revelations in the capital punishment case against his parents — a case that still arouses deep passion in those who believe the Rosenbergs were executed for political and not criminal reasons. (The two remain the only American civilians ever executed in the U.S. for espionage.)

Last month, on Sept. 11 — “an interesting choice of dates,” Meeropol said — the federal government released the grand jury testimony of all but three of the people who testified before the grand jury that indicted the Rosenbergs.

The three people whose testimony was not released are still alive and objected to the release. Among those three is David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother and the person who supplied the most damning testimony against the couple during their trial, still referred to as “the espionage trial of the century.” (Greenglass was a U.S. Army machinist working at Los Alamos National Laboratories, where the atomic bomb was being built. In 1944, the Rosenbergs allegedly lured him into a spy ring.)

The day the 930 pages of grand jury testimony was released, the New York Times interviewed Morton Sobell, who was tried and convicted along with the Rosenbergs and spent 18 years in federal prisons. Sobell, 91, who had always maintained his innocence, said in the interview that he had, in fact, passed along to the Soviets information, and he implicated Julius Rosenberg.

However, as Meeropol took pains to point out Tuesday evening, Sobell said in the interview that he never possessed or passed to the Soviets any information about the making of the atomic bomb.

“Since the 1980s I’ve seriously considered the possibility that what Morton described [in the New York Times interview] is the case,” Meeropol told the audience in St. Paul.

And Sobell also said that the only thing Ethel Rosenberg was guilty of was being Julius Rosenberg’s wife.

In fact, Meeropol said during his presentation, the biggest recent news was not Sobell’s admission that he and Julius Rosenberg did some non-atomic-bomb-related spying for the Soviets, but rather grand jury testimony indicating that Ethel Rosenberg was innocent of the charge for which she was executed.

Inconsistent testimony

Among the grand jury testimony released Sept. 11 was that of Ruth Greenglass, David’s wife. Before the grand jury, Ruth Greenglass testified that she wrote down notes from an alleged key meeting at which the atomic bomb was supposedly discussed; she never mentions Ethel Rosenberg as a participant.

During the actual trial, however, Ruth Greenglass testified that Ethel Rosenberg was at this alleged meeting and typed up the notes about the atomic bomb — the key evidence against Ethel Rosenberg implicating her in the conspiracy.

“Ruth Greenglass [in her grand jury testimony] contradicts her key testimony against my mother … that was the real bombshell,” Meeropol said.

No atomic secrets

When Judge Irving R. Kaufman announced to the court that he was sentencing the Rosenbergs to death, Kaufman made it crystal clear the atomic bomb was the reason he was imposing such a sentence.

According to court documents, Kaufman said in his sentencing speech: “I consider your crimes worse than murder. … I believe your conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding fifty thousand.”

Meeropol said all of the evidence that he’s seen continues to “confirm that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg never did what they were executed for—and that the U.S. government knew it.”

Meeropol suggested to the crowd that they do what they can as lawyers and citizens to stop governments from such abuses.

“I think there are many people who believe my parents did something illegal but regret that my parents were executed,” he said. “I think many of us today will regret that we lived in a time when our government was engaged in torture and we didn’t do enough about it.”

This article was previously published in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report.

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