By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
NEW YORK, Sept. 22 -- Before Julius and Ethel Rosenberg died in the electric chair for espionage in 1953, they left a message for their sons: "Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience."
On Monday, after fighting a decades-long battle for the release of secret records, the sons said they have reached a different conclusion. In separate telephone interviews, they said that they have now read all of the recently released grand jury testimony and talked to their parents' one living collaborator and have little doubt that their father was guilty of espionage -- but that their mother was framed.
"Now I think it's a virtual certainty," said Robert Meeropol, 61, the executive director of the Rosenberg Foundation for Children, which supports the children of activist parents who have suffered because of their politics. Robert and his older brother, Michael, took the name of their adoptive parents after the Rosenbergs were executed.
The brothers said that the trial was riddled with prosecutorial misconduct and that their mother was executed on dubious charges in an effort to persuade their father to confess and name other spies.
"They created a case for my mother," said Michael Meeropol, 65, chairman of the economics department at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass. "They put a gun to her head and said to my father, 'Talk or we kill her.' "
The Rosenbergs' case goes back to 1945, when a Soviet cipher clerk revealed that the Russians were spying extensively on the United States, though they had been allies during World War II.
In July 1950, FBI agents arrested Julius Rosenberg, a Communist, at their home on the Lower East Side, in a case that divided the country ideologically. A month later, Ethel Rosenberg was also arrested.
Details of their 1951 trial in Manhattan have been the basis for books, films and law school analyses. But most of the grand jury testimony -- revealing because the questions are broader and the answers less rehearsed than in a trial -- had remained sealed. Recently, in response to a lawsuit filed by the Meeropol brothers and historians, the government made public the grand jury testimony of witnesses who are dead or who consented.
Morton Sobell, who maintained his innocence through his 1951 trial and conviction of espionage with the Rosenbergs, last week told the New York Times that he had passed military secrets to the Soviet Union and so had Julius -- but not Ethel.
The Meeropol brothers told the Times that they thought their father had likely been a spy.
During the trial, the government said the Rosenbergs had asked Ethel's brother, David Greenglass, who worked as a machinist in the atomic bomb program at Los Alamos, N.M., to provide them with information and diagrams of the bomb.
David's wife, Ruth Greenglass, testified at trial that in 1945 Ethel Rosenberg had typed her brother David's notes. David corroborated that story, which became significant evidence against Ethel.
David did not consent to have his grand jury testimony released, but Ruth died on April 7, and hers was made public. In that testimony, Ruth said she had handwritten her husband's notes and did not mention Ethel Rosenberg typing.
The revelation supported a prior confession by David Greenglass to Sam Roberts, a New York Times reporter who was writing a book, that he had lied on the stand.
"I frankly think my wife did the typing, but I don't remember," Greenglass told Roberts, the journalist wrote in "The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case."
"You know, I seldom use the word 'sister' anymore; I've just wiped it out of my mind," Greenglass said, adding, "My wife put her in it. So what am I going to do, call my wife a liar? My wife is my wife."
For the Rosenberg sons, who were 6 and 10 when their parents were executed, the grand jury testimony finally dislodged their childhood assumptions of their parents' innocence.
Robert Meeropol said he remembers visiting his parents at Sing Sing penitentiary.
"I remember sitting on my father's lap, and my father played word games with my brother. I remember my mother seemed shorter in prison than I expected. She was wearing flat prison slippers, and also, I was growing."
"Everybody said they were innocent," he said. "It was a part of my reality. That's the way I grew up."
The boys were adopted by Abel and Anne Meeropol. He was a teacher and lyricist who wrote hits such as "Strange Fruit" and "The House I Live In."
In the 1970s, the brothers began to lobby through the Freedom of Information Act for the release of sealed materials, hoping to vindicate their parents.
Then, Robert Meeropol said, "when I went to law school in the 1980s, I looked at the evidence in the case with the eyes of someone with some legal training." He began to realize that evidence of prosecutorial blunders is not the same as evidence of innocence.
In the 1990s, the government released decrypted Soviet World War II-era cables that implicated their father.
"My brother and I are honest enough to admit that when we started this in the early 1970s, we were certain of one thing," said Michael Meeropol. "And we changed our minds. I would like to see the United States government have the same kind of honesty."