EASTHAMPTON – The decades-long saga of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, executed in 1953 on charges of being Soviet spies, is taking a new turn, with their sons asking President Obama to formally exonerate their mother, citing recently disclosed proof she was framed.
Brothers Michael and Robert Meeropol plan to submit their request to Obama after the election, detailing how the prosecution faked evidence that sent her to the electric chair. It is their hope that Obama will act on the case, one of the numerous requests for pardons and clemency on his desk before he leaves office.
The effort is part of the brothers’ four-decade quest to uncover the truth about their parents’ sensational case that occurred at the height of the Cold War, anti-Communist hysteria.
“It is an object lesson in government misconduct. It is a perversion of the judicial process for political purposes and that’s incompatible with a functioning democracy,” Robert Meeropol said in an interview Tuesday in the Easthampton offices of the family’s Rosenberg Fund for Children.
The brothers’ efforts received a large audience Sunday with a “60 Minutes” story that resulted from a exhaustive review of historical documents that all but prove Ethel Rosenberg was not a spy. The family aims to capitalize on publicity generated by the two-part television segment to mobilize supporters.
So far, 13,000 people have signed a petition calling for the exoneration of Ethel Rosenberg, and the hope is to have 50,000 signatures before submitting it to the White House, according to Robert’s daughter Jennifer Meeropol, executive director of the Rosenberg Fund, which provides grants for education, counseling, and other services for children of activists.
To that end, the Rosenberg Fund is hosting a conference call Thursday night for supporters who want to learn more about the case and find out how they can help.
Efforts to reach a White House spokesman for comment about the Rosenberg case were unsuccessful.
Convicted of stealing atomic secrets to give to the Soviet Union, the Rosenbergs were put to death three years after police arrested Julius Rosenberg in the family’s Knickerbocker Village apartment, on Manhattan’s lower East Side, while their 3- and 7-year-old sons looked on.
The boys, later adopted by the Meeropol family, lived in relative anonymity until they took up their parents’ cause. In 1975, they filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act. That suit and the actions that followed it, Robert Meeropol said, were always “a quest for the truth, and we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”
In 2008, those chips led the brothers to stop believing their father was entirely innocent of spying, although they steadfastly maintain he did not give any nuclear secrets to the Soviets, as the government contended, and therefore was unjustly executed.
Their mother was a different story. Her brother, David Greenglass, whose trial testimony helped convict her, admitted in a 2001 televised interview that he lied on the witness stand to protect his wife, Ruth Greenglass. He said he was coached to lie by prosecutor Roy Cohn, best known for his association with Senator Joseph McCarthy and his unbridled hunt for Communist sympathizers.
Then last year, grand jury testimony unsealed after Greenglass’ death corroborated the claim because his grand jury statement did not match his trial testimony.
In their quest to prove their mother was not a spy, the brothers point to the fact that she did not have a KGB code name, while Ruth Greenglass did, and a communication from the KGB to someone in the United States stating Ethel Rosenberg “does not work,” a phrase signifying she was not a spy.
“The government knew that at the time of the trial,” said Michael Meeropol, referring to the fact that his mother was not actually a spy. Rather, her prosecution was a “lever against her husband” to get him to confess to spying, according to government documents.
“We’re talking about a deliberate plot to execute somebody who didn’t do the things they were executing her for,” said Robert Meeropol, 69, an Easthampton resident.
Michael Meeropol, a retired professor from Western New England University, said they specifically are not seeking a presidential pardon. “A pardon is weird because it implies guilt,” he said.
Rather, the brothers want a proclamation similar to one issued in 1977 by then Governor Michael Dukakis in the notorious Sacco and Vanzetti case. Dukakis declared the pair had been unjustly executed in 1927 for murders they did not commit, proclaiming “any stigma and disgrace should be forever removed” from their names and those of their descendants.
“A presidential proclamation is a perfect way to reaffirm the belief and rule of law and also to right a wrong,” said Michael Meeropol, who now lives in Cold Spring, New York. “It would be a way of reminding people that every once in a while, our system of justice goes awry, especially in politically charged times.”
Georgetown University law professor David Vladeck, who handled litigation on behalf of Rosenberg historians that resulted in the unsealing of the grand jury documents, says there is no evidence that Ethel Rosenberg was a spy, even though she may have known that her husband was. And he does not think people should be as concerned about whether she’s innocent as they should about whether she was unjustly convicted.
“The question is was she wrongfully convicted based on information that prosecutors had reason to believe was false, and the answer is I don’t think there is evidence to convict her of the crime she was convicted of,” he said. “I think the Meeropol boys have a strong claim that their mother was railroaded.”
The Meeropol family sees what happened to their parents and grandparents as a cautionary tale, and their campaign to correct the injustice not merely personal.
“My brother and I are doing this not just for our family, but for our country,” Michael said.
Laurie Loisel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect date for the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. It was 1927.