Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Rosenbergs: A Case of Love, Espionage, Deceit and Betray

The Trial

The Cast of Characters:

  • The Accused: Julius Rosenberg
  • Ethel Rosenberg
  • Morton Sobell
  • Anatoli Yakovlev (in absentia)
  • The Judge: Irving Kaufman
  • The Prosecution: Irving H. Saypol
  • Roy Cohn
  • The Defense: Emanuel Bloch
  • Alexander Bloch
  • Edward Kuntz
  • The Witnesses: Ruth Greenglass
  • David Greenglass
  • Harry Gold (previously sentenced to thirty years)
  • Max Elitcher
  • Elizabeth Bentley
  • Evelyn Cox
  • Ben Schneider

Sobell with Rosenbergs (Lamphere)
Sobell with Rosenbergs (Lamphere)

The trial of the Rosenbergs and their alleged conspirator Morton Sobell began on March 6, 1951. In order to place the trial in its context, it is important to note that the previous eighteen months had produced a series of events that created a climate of fear in the country.

Julius had been arrested on July 17, 1950, Ethel on August 11, 1950. Eleven and a half months earlier, Russia had detonated its first atomic bomb. From that date in August, 1949 to the beginning of their trial, the American public was subjected to a number of startling revelations.

January, 1950: Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury in the famous Hiss-Chambers spy case.

February, 1950:Senator Joseph P. McCarthy delivered his Wheeling, WV speech, proclaiming that the State Department had 205 subversives in its employ, dramatically waving a sheet of paper purportedly containing the names.

Judge Irving R. Kaufman (AP)
Judge Irving R. Kaufman (AP)

March, 1950: Klaus Fuchs was convicted and sentenced to fourteen years by a British court for violating Britain's Official Secrets Act.

June, 1950: The Korean War began.

The trial was presided over by Judge Irving R. Kaufman, a forty-year-old legal prodigy. Kaufman was ambitious, known for his scholarly decisions, and a stern ruler of his trials.

The principal prosecutor was United States Attorney Irving H. Saypol. He was already famous for his successes against Alger Hiss, eleven Smith Act defendants accused of being communists, and his recent victory in the conviction of William Remington for perjury. Remington was a Commerce Department employee who, Elizabeth Bentley claimed, had passed classified documents to her.

Prosecutor Irving Saypol
Prosecutor Irving Saypol

He was assisted by a very young, brash Roy Cohn, better known later as Senator McCarthy's right-hand man. Cohn, in his autobiography, claims that it was he who got Kaufman assigned to the Rosenberg-Sobell trial. Further, he claims that it was he who manipulated the Department of Justice to appoint Saypol. According to Cohn, both men intensely wanted the assignments. While Cohn writes with grudging admiration for Kaufman, he considered Saypol to be an egotistical idiot. Most alarming, Cohn charges that he and Kaufman, and Saypol and Kaufman, had many ex parte discussions about the case. If this is so, it is at least unethical and at most prejudicial to the defendants.

The jury, made up mostly of accountants and auditors, none of whom were Jewish, was selected not only by the prosecutors and defense lawyers, but by Judge Kaufman as well. One would have thought that jury selection in such a case would have taken a long time, but it was completed in only a day and a half.

The Prosecution Presents its Case:

The government's case against Morton Sobell was based largely on the testimony of Max Elichter, who testified that he had accompanied Sobell when a can of microfilm was delivered to Julius Rosenberg. Sobell and Elichter were fellow students at CCNY with Rosenberg. Several others, who were suspected of being part of the Rosenberg espionage ring, by the time of the trial had fled the country. They too were fellow students at CCNY. One of these defectors was Joel Barr, who became the leading force in the Soviet computer industry. He died in a Moscow hospital on August 1, 1998. The facts that Sobell had fled to Mexico and had been forcibly returned to the United States by the FBI, that he had used various aliases while in Mexico, and that he had used Elichter as a "mail-drop" while in Mexico was damaging to Sobell's defense. His lawyer, Edward Kuntz, tried unsuccessfully to disparage Elichter's testimony.

The case against the Rosenbergs was based mainly (but not exclusively) on the testimony of the Greenglasses and Harry Gold. Gold had already been sentenced to thirty years for his complicity in the Fuchs Case and his role in receiving documents from David Greenglass. David Greenglass would soon be sentenced to fifteen years, and Ruth Greenglass was an unindicted co-conspirator. O. John Rugge, the lawyer for the Greenglasses, had engineered the relatively light sentence for David and no sentence at all for Ruth by convincing them to cooperate with the government.

Gold testified that he had been given half of a Jello box to present to Greenglass in Albuquerque. David had the other half, and said that it had been prepared by Julius as a means of identification. He also identified himself to Greenglass with the words, "I come from Julius." Earlier in his confession he had said that the signal was "I come from Ben," but he changed it to "Julius" upon reflection. Fearing additional damage from Gold's testimony, Emanuel Bloch took the unusual step of not cross-examining Gold.

The Greenglasses testified that Julius had induced David to join the Communist Party, and had urged Ruth to encourage David to steal atom bomb secrets. After the war, David and his brother Bernie joined Julius in the operation of a machine-shop, which was a failure and closed in 1947. After Harry Gold's confession appeared in the newspapers in June, 1950, Julius urged David and Ruth and their small children to flee to Mexico. He gave the Greenglasses $4,000 to finance their escape. The money was eventually given to their lawyer, Rogge, for safe-keeping.

Ethel was implicated by her brother and sister-in-law. They recounted how Ethel had, in their presence, typed David Greenglass's Los Alamos notes.

What was David Greenglass's motive for testifying against his sister and her husband? Was it resentment over the failed business, and his cavalier treatment by Julius? Or did he consider the Rosenbergs at fault for their willingness to first recruit him to their cause, and then to sacrifice him for their fervent political beliefs? One might speculate that the combined forces of his wife, Ruth, and David and Ethel's mother, Tessie, served to overcome David's hesitancy on informing on his sister. Whatever his motives, David Greenglass was a grinning, unattractive witness who appeared to be gloating.

Despite his distasteful courtroom demeanor, his testimony was damaging. In addition to providing Gold with the names of scientists working on the atom bomb, he provided notes and sketches on the bomb's design. Of particular importance (charged the prosecution) was a sketch of the "lens mold," a device to "focus" energy for the bomb's detonation by implosion.

During this testimony, Emanuel Bloch incredibly requested that Greenglass's further testimony on the design of the bomb be given without spectators present. This, said Bloch, was to preserve "the secret of the atom bomb." Judge Kaufman, asking Bloch if he was sure that was what he wanted, granted the request. The net effect was to convince the jury that David Greenglass had indeed passed vital secrets to Harry Gold, the culmination of the conspiracy designed by Julius Rosenberg. In reality, Greenglass's description of the bomb was neither completely accurate nor particularly useful to the Soviets, who already were in possession of Klaus Fuchs' much more accurate data. Bloch's expression of patriotism merely enhanced the credibility of the government's chief witness.

Upon cross-examination, Bloch attempted to demonstrate that Greenglass was a weak, easily manipulated, unbelievable witness. The attempt achieved little. David Greenglass held to his story, even stating that Julius was his hero who had convinced David that spying was the right thing to do at the time.

Emanuel Bloch after hearing sentence (Nizer)
Emanuel Bloch after hearing
sentence (Nizer)

Ruth Greenglass was an impressive prosecution witness. Well groomed, calm, evidently well rehearsed, she confirmed her husband's account of Ethel's typing of the Los Alamos information. She added two more incidents that indicated Ethel's role as a full partner in the espionage of her husband. One was her admission to Ruth that she did not find David's handwriting difficult to decipher she was getting used to it. A second comment by Ruth was that Ethel had informed Ruth by letter that a meeting that Ruth was to have with her courier, Harry Gold, had been rescheduled.

Alexander Bloch, Ethel's lawyer and Emanuel Bloch's father, failed to move Ruth from her very precise testimony. Emanuel Bloch, taking over from his father in the cross-examination, was no more successful. While he tried to suggest that the money given by Julius to the Greenglasses was a return on their investment in the machine shop in effect, a business debt Julius made no suggestion that this was the case when he took the stand. Boldly, Ruth told Bloch that the money had come from the Russians, an assertion that could neither be supported or disproved.

Among the remaining prosecution witnesses was Dr. George Bernhardt, the Rosenbergs' family physician. He testified that Julius had asked for information concerning the types of inoculations necessary to enter Mexico. The information, Julius told Bernhardt, was for a friend. While Dr. Bernhardt did not testify that Julius had actually asked him to forge medical certificates, his testimony supported David Greenglass's contention that Julius was encouraging the Greenglasses to flee to Mexico.

Other witnesses called by Saypol added details to Sobell's flight to Mexico, and Sobell's use of aliases.

Elizabeth Bentley (AP)
Elizabeth Bentley (AP)

Unexpectedly, the prosecution reported that it had only Elizabeth Bentley to call, and that the prosecution's case would be completed the following morning. This completely surprised the defense, who had been given a list of many more potential witnesses.

The last prosecution witness, then, was the "Red Spy Queen" herself. She was now a professional witness, and was literally making a career of testifying in Communist spy trials. She testified that her espionage control and lover, Jacob Golos, had picked up an envelope from a man resembling Julius Rosenberg. Since the incident had occurred in 1942, before the conspiracy supposedly began, it was not admissible. However, she reported that later she had received five or six calls from a man seeking meetings with Golos. The caller began each phone conversation with "This is Julius." While this proved nothing code names were the usual method in communications among spies it probably had an impact on the jury.

On cross-examination, Bloch was unable to shake Bentley's story. With her testimony completed, the prosecution for the time being rested its case.

The Defense:

Emanuel and Alexander Bloch would call only two witnesses: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Julius, led through his testimony by Emanuel Bloch, denied each of the specific charges that prosecution witnesses had made against him. At several points, Judge Kaufman interrupted, asking Julius questions about Communism versus Capitalism. Then, in what was to prove most damning to the Rosenbergs, Kaufman asked if he had ever belonged to any group that discussed the Soviet system. After some hedging, Julius said, "Well, your Honor, I feel at this time that I refuse to answer a question that might tend to incriminate me."

With his use of the Fifth Amendment, Julius lost the sympathy of the jurors. Alexander Bloch had argued against this strategy, proposing that being forthright about his "youthful idealism" would be preferable to assuming a veil of innocence. The jury already believed that the Rosenbergs were Communists anyway. His son and the Rosenbergs over-ruled him. The Rosenbergs not only wished to invoke the Fifth Amendment out of principle, but they wanted to avoid having to answer questions about their associates.

Saypol relentlessly cross-examined Julius. Indeed, he left traps that encouraged Julius to "take the Fifth" again and again. Finally, Saypol asked a series of questions about whether the Rosenbergs had had passport photos taken. Julius denied this, although he admitted that his family had had "snapshots" taken from time to time. Saypol asked him about a specific address of a photographer, but Julius was vague as to his ever having visited the photographer in question.

As had her husband, Ethel denied each of the allegations against her. However, her demeanor on the witness stand was to be her undoing. She was more than composed she was cold, contemptuous, almost arrogant, so much so that she gave the false impression that she was the one in charge of the Rosenberg spy ring.

Again, Saypol was able to induce the witness to invoke the Fifth Amendment. Then, seriously damaging her credibility, he asked why she was now answering some questions freely that she had refused to answer before the Grand Jury. She said that she couldn't remember the reasons for her doing so.

While Ethel had every right to invoke the Fifth Amendment in either proceeding without a presumption of guilt as was confirmed by the Supreme Court some years later she, like her husband, had lost the jury's sympathy.

Morton Sobell, on the advice of his attorney, Edward Kuntz, did not testify. Kuntz' strategy was that there were two different conspiracies, and that his client had no part in the Rosenberg conspiracy.

To the surprise of the defense, the prosecution called three rebuttal witnesses. The first, Evelyn Cox, the Rosenbergs' cleaning lady, disputed Ethel's claim that a small console table had been purchased at Macy's. The table, supposedly altered so that it could be used for microfilming, had been mentioned by Ruth Greenglass. Ethel had told Mrs. Cox that it had been a gift. While insignificant in itself, Mrs. Cox's testimony seemed to confirm Ruth Greenglass's truthfulness and make Ethel's testimony seem devious.

The second rebuttal witness was the Greenglasses' lawyer's secretary, who confirmed receiving $3,900 from Ruth's brother-in-law, reminding the jury of the supposed $4,000 given to the Greenglasses by Julius, to be used for their flight to Mexico.

The third witness was Ben Schneider, a photographer, who had taken three dozen passport photos of the Rosenbergs in mid-June, 1950, after David Greenglass's arrest.

Unbeknownst to the defense, the prosecution had learned of the passport photos through a prison informer, Jerome Tartakow, Julius Rosenberg's jailhouse chess partner.

Bloch could do little with the cross-examination of these three witnesses except to question the accuracy of their memories.

The summations were in stark contrast with one another. Bloch profusely thanked Judge Kaufman and prosecutor Saypol for their many courtesies and fairness. (This effusiveness would come back to haunt Bloch when he attempted to appeal on the basis on the trial judge's prejudicial conduct of the trial.) Then he went on to attack the Greenglasses as repulsive individuals, people who would falsely accuse their own relatives in order to save their skins.

Kuntz, in summing up his defense of Morton Sobell, accused Max Elichter of perjury. Further, he attacked the government for dragging Sobell back from Mexico, in order to ensure an appearance of guilt.

Saypol was less gentle. He vigorously recounted the evidence, and castigated the accused for the terribleness of their crimes. He ended with:

These defendants stand before you in the face of overwhelming proof of this terrible disloyalty, proof which transcends any emotional consideration and must eliminate any consideration of sympathy.

No defendants ever stood before the bar of American justice less deserving of sympathy than these three.

Judge Kaufman charged the jury. The next morning at 11:00 a.m., the jury returned a verdict of guilty as charged for all three defendants. The date was March 29, 1951. Sentencing was scheduled for April 5th.

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