FATAL ERROR: The Real Reasons for the Illegal Execution of the Rosenbergs by Joseph H. Sharlitt

FATAL ERROR: The Real Reasons for the Illegal Execution of the Rosenbergs

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Sharlitt, editorial chairman of The Harvard Crimson and a lawyer who has argued frequently before the Supreme Court, offers a unique and damning legal perspective here on the infamous Rosenberg expionage trial of the early 1950's. Sharlitt claims not to tackle the Rosenbergs' guilt or innocence (though he spends much space arguing that the couple served as a convenient scapegoat for those in government cowed by the McCarthyist tide of that era). Rather, he addresses the legal issues of the case and concludes that the convicted spies were executed illegally by a system and justices (both trial judge Irving Kaufman and the six Supreme Court justices who voted against staying the execution) blind to any avenues of moderation. Sharlitt's theory rests on the single fact that the Rosenbergs were tried inappropriately under the 1917 Espionage Act (which allowed judicial condemnation) rather than under the 1946 Atomic Energy Act (which required that spies who passed atomic secrets could be executed only on the recommendation of a sitting jury). Amazingly, Sharlitt concludes, an objection based on this miscarriage was brought before the Supreme Court only two days before the execution date (June 19, 1953), and it was knocked down by a combination of personal pique (since maverick William O. Douglas found merit in it, the other justices reflexively did not) and an illegal interference by the prosecution. The author is very convincing in demonstrating the unfairness of the treatment of the Rosenbergs (of 11 such atomic spies, they were the only ones executed), and the silliness of Judge Kaufman's conclusion that the Rosenbergs' actions had caused the Korean Conflict (when, other spies such as Klaus Fuchs had contributed so much more to the Soviet Union). Convincing, and sure to be controversial, stirring long-settled passions of both the Left and the Right.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1989
Publisher: Scribners