Should We Take Another Look At the Rosenberg Espionage Trial?

The conspiracy surrounding the Rosenbergs wasn’t simple. Only a few weeks after the Korean War broke out, arrests were made on the grounds that Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg conspired to commit espionage. That was the charge, but the reality was less murky: the couple was tried, convicted, and eventually executed three years later after allegedly providing the recipe for an atomic bomb to one of America’s greatest rivals, the USSR.

The funny thing about a conspiracy charge is this: no one has to prove beyond any doubt that you did something wrong in court. So how exactly was the couple tried and found guilty when the punishment would be death for treason? Easy. The government found witnesses who would testify to the wrongdoing of the defendants. Who, though, would know of such wrongdoing? Ethel’s brother and his wife, as it turns out. The government charged them both with conspiracy to commit espionage as well, and then allowed the couple to testify against the Rosenbergs in exchange for a softer sentence.

We know now that the U.S. had evidence that Julius ran errands as a courier for the Soviets, and also helped them recruit. Did the Rosenbergs give plans to build the atom bomb, jet propulsion engines, sonar, and radar to the USSR? Many believe they did, while others believe they did not. They were certainly guilty of conspiracy, but to what extent–and why did that matter so little at the time in the court of public opinion?

This case is important because it aids in several important discussions regarding something we’re supposed to believe in as Americans: that is, you’re innocent until proven guilty. The Rosenberg case told us exactly how these types of important, publicized cases should not play out. Although the government had a treasure trove of evidence that was not declassified until the USSR collapsed, almost no direct, tangible evidence linking the couple to any wrongdoing was made public during the trial and subsequent execution, causing a great number of people to defend the integrity of the couple.

Their children, for example, maintained the couple’s innocence until the files were declassified. Even then, they believed that the files pointed a finger more at Julius and less at his wife.

The trial also forced us to reconsider how to best employ the death penalty in any circumstance. Some might contend that Ethel’s role in the apparent espionage, however small or large it may have been, should not have required a lethal response maybe just a few less days at the beach. There are a great number of historians who contend that neither she nor her husband was deserving. There are others who adamantly suppose that the couple would never have been tried at all, had it not been for the rampant paranoia that plagued communities and social orders during the Cold War.

Today, the death penalty is still controversial–here in the U.S. anyway. The Rosenberg trial begs the question: is the death penalty ever really necessary? Is it truly a humane response to criminal activity if there is even a sliver of doubt concerning a person’s guilt or innocence? These are questions we will undoubtedly continue to ask ourselves in the foreseeable future. Maybe we should continue to analyze the Rosenberg espionage trial for that reason alone.

The Trial of Galileo Galilei

Galileo was born in 1564 and lived to the ripe old age of 77, when he died in 1642. That’s pretty good, under the circumstances. Today he is famous for having hypothesized many of the scientific principles and realities that we take for granted–such as the super silly notion that the planets revolve around the sun instead of around the earth (the former concept is known as heliocentrism, and the incorrect latter concept known as geocentrism). Although he was eventually proven partially correct, the scientific minds of the time period were compelled in a large part by religion. Heliocentrism contradicted Scripture. If you contradict God, then you’re considered a heretic, and so to trial he went.

Galileo quickly discovered much in astronomy that led to controversy. During the time period, there weren’t many who could force people to question their place in the cosmos, but Galileo was such a man. He discovered mountainous terrain on the moon and satellites revolving around Jupiter. He discovered sunspots and the phases of Venus. He discovered nebulae, even though he couldn’t begin to conceive what they were. Although his newly-founded views of the universe were frowned upon, he persisted.

The Roman Catholic Church had already lended its support to scientists and astronomers such as Aristotle and Ptolemy, and so the rift had begun. Although Jesuits first disagreed with Galileo’s findings, they eventually concluded the same after observing the phenomena for themselves. Many of those who refused to accept Galileo’s contributions to the field of astronomy purportedly never even bothered to look through a telescope in order to see for themselves. Then again, we experience a lot of the same type of skeptics today in even more important areas of science.

Certain high-ranking members of the Catholic church were called upon to offer their opinions on the Galileo problem. One decided that heliocentrism needn’t remain an issue as long as it was considered only in theory or hypothesis, and not in reality. When Galileo would not relent to those who disputed his findings, he was asked to provide conclusions based on physics and mathematics. He initially refused, but eventually provided a number of such conclusions. The church refused to listen to his reasoning.

An inquisition was formed on February 19, 1616 in order to discuss the reality of a heliocentric view of the universe. When this viewpoint was determined to be theologically absurd, he was ordered to essentially cease and desist, or else stronger measures would be forced upon him.

After a long period of back and forth between supporters and opponents, he was eventually ordered to stand trial in 1633. He was found guilty of heresy on June 22 of the same year. At first he was sentenced to imprisonment, but this was changed to house arrest. He died at home in Italy. As a result of the proceedings, many of his publications were banned for a time.

Galileo’s observation of heliocentrism suggested the sun was the center of the universe, which we now know to be untrue. It’s simply the center of one solar system in a single galaxy within the massive observable universe we know about today.

The Trial of Joan of Arc

We grow up learning about the Middle Ages–or more specifically how little we know about the years from about 500 to 1500 A.D. Toward the end of this fairly interesting time period was a figure known as Joan of Arc, a young French heroine who participated in the Hundred Years’ War and has gone down in history as a saint. She grew up a peasant and, according to her, she heard visions from the Archangel Michael and a couple of saints, all of whom urged her to lend aid to Charles VII.

She fought against the English rule over France, and eventually, the French Charles VII was indeed crowned king. Unfortunately, Joan of Arc was caught by English allies in 1430 and burned at the stake just over a year later. Do you know the reason?

Before she was executed by the English, however, there was a short trial. We have very detailed records–even during this somewhat “dark” time period–because notaries were directed to take copious notes during the trial. These notes were published some years later and copied repeatedly. Now they are a part of history. And have come in handy for several defense attorney and lawyers everywhere. 

Joan’s life was examined as thoroughly as possible so the English could deride her character, but their efforts were mostly in vain. Her virginity was examined (and found to be intact). Her home, upbringing, and social status were all investigated relentlessly. Those conducting the preliminary inquiries found nothing that would be helpful at trial, and so these efforts were essentially wasted.

During an interrogation that took place before the first trial date, her method of dressing was immediately frowned upon. She dressed as a soldier, with her clothing tied together in a single piece. She explained to those who interrogated her that it was to prevent rape. During the first court appearance, she said that she could make no guarantee of the truth of her answers because she had no idea on which subjects she would be questioned. she was asked to recite certain prayers, but she responded by demanding to be heard in confession in exchange for the recitation.

During the proceedings, she was repeatedly accused of heresy and asked to renounce all the visions she experienced which led her to fight against the English in order to crown Charles VII. She was also asked to give up her soldier’s clothing, even though she knew the consequences. Although she decided to sign an abjuration at first, she “recanted” only days later, and again wore the clothing which she had sworn to give up. Then again, she was given no choice. The guards provided her with only the clothing she had already been wearing, even after she argued that she should be given something else to wear because she had signed the abjuration.

This forced “relapse” into heresy provided the English court all the justification it required to have her executed on May 30, 1431.

Although Joan of Arc died at the hands of the English at the young age of nineteen, she was pronounced innocent by Pope Callixtus III shortly thereafter in 1456. He said she was a martyr. Napoleon Bonaparte later declared her a national symbol of France in 1803.

What Were The Nuremberg Trials And Why Were They Significant?

In Germany, the Nazi party held an annual rally in Nuremberg before the beginning of World War II. Many of the laws proposed and instituted during these rallies targeted Jews as a part of fundamental Nazi ideology, and they helped pave the way for the Holocaust to slowly unfold over the next decade. Many of the “Nuremberg Laws”–as they would come to be known–prevented anyone with Jewish blood from obtaining citizenship in the Reich, and made sexual relations between Jews and “pure-blooded” Germans a criminal offense. Over time, those of Jewish background all but lost most of the rights we hold universal and self-evident today.

It is only fitting then, that the trials which would crush Nazi war criminals under the fist of justice would take place in Nuremberg. They were carried out from the end of the war in 1945 until 1949 and were aptly named the Nuremberg Trials. The defendants of this trial were mostly former higher-ups in the Nazi party, including military officers, doctors, lawyers, industrialists, etc.

These trials were not only significant in their scope, but also because they were a cornerstone for the international laws that would eventually be drafted in order to prevent a recurrence of the atrocities of the Holocaust, most of which have persisted until today. They helped humanity recognize how these atrocities can occur, and who can legally be held accountable. In addition, it was only because of the Nuremberg Trials that an eventual international court was finally established in order to deal with proposed injustices as they occur throughout the world.

For many, these changes did not happen fast enough to make a difference.

It was not until December of 1942 that Allied leaders acknowledged the slaughter of the Jewish peoples who had resided throughout Europe at the time of Germany’s invasion–long, long after they already knew. It was at this time that they made public their intent to prosecute those responsible for the proposed crimes against humanity.

Perhaps a surprise to no one, Joseph Stalin suggested that up to 100,000 German officers be executed. Even Winston Churchill tossed about the idea of summarily executing certain members of the Nazi party. American leaders rejected these ideas outright, although probably not for the reasons we might invoke today. Instead, they believed the best way to avoid scrutiny of the executions in the future was to try those whose guilt was already certain. That way, evidence could be collected and cataloged for future generations who might otherwise judge those who put the men to death as equally guilty.

Although there was a precedent for trying military officers and political leaders for war crimes on a much smaller scale in regional conflicts that occur in one country or another, there were certainly no precedents available for trying such a great number of people accused of international crimes against humanity. The London Charter of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) helped draft the laws which would then govern the Nuremberg Trials. This charter helped categorize crimes based on what occurred. If you violated a peace treaty, you could be charged with a crime against peace. If you violated already-established customs or laws that typically govern war, you could be charged with a war crime. If you were guilty of murder, you could be charged with a crime against humanity.

These first steps were those that inspired the Geneva Conventions that we still use to govern international law today–and hopefully will into the future.

Famous Trials: Leopold and Loeb

In order to fully understand the ramifications of this trial, first, we have to learn a little about the two key players – Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.

Nathan Leopold was a child prodigy with an intelligence of 210. He spoke 5 languages fluently and was a renowned ornithologist by the time he was 18 years old. Richard Loeb was also intelligent, skipping several grades and graduating University at the age of 17. But he was characterized as lazy and unmotivated.

This is important to note because Leopold and Loeb thought that their superior intelligence would allow them to plan and execute the perfect crime and not get caught. They were also both influenced by Nietzsche and his concept of the Ubermensch or Superman. The fact that they were intellectually superior to the common folk and their basic rules didn’t apply to them. They began testing this theory by a string of petty theft but no one noticed or cared. This is when they began to plan “their perfect crime” that would garner them media attention and catapult them into Superman status.

Leopold (then 19) and Loeb (then 18) somehow believed that kidnapping and murdering a young boy would be the perfect crime. They spent months planning every little detail from the method of abduction to the disposal of the body, to the delivery method of the money for the ransom as well as which chisel to buy to commit the murder.

Decided to murder Bobby Franks was easy as it was Loeb’s cousin and former tennis partner.

On May 21st, 1924 as Leopold and Loeb offered Franks a ride in a rented vehicle. Leopold drove and Loeb sat in the back seat with the chisel. Franks originally declined the invite but was convinced to get into the car after Loeb offered to discuss tennis rackets. Franks sat in the passenger seat and Loeb struck him in the head with the chisel several times. He then dragged him into the back seat, gagged him and Franks subsequently died. Then poured hydrochloric acid onto his face, body scar, and genitals to obscure any identification to the body, and dumped him in the culvert near the railroad in Hammond Indiana. By the time they arrived back to Chicago, there were already reports that Franks was missing. They made their first phone call to the Franks family saying a ransom note will be sent soon, then mailed their ransom note, burned Franks’s clothes and cleaned the blood off the rented car.

Then they poured hydrochloric acid onto his face, body scar, and genitals to obscure any identification to the body, and dumped him in the culvert near the railroad in Hammond Indiana. By the time they arrived back to Chicago, there were already reports that Franks was missing. They made their first phone call to the Franks family saying a ransom note will be sent soon, then mailed their ransom note, burned Franks’s clothes and cleaned the blood off the rented car.

The next morning they called a second time to dictate the first set of payment for ransom. This is where the plan fell apart. The intricate instructions were too confusing and a nervous family member forgot where he was supposed to go.

As this was happening, Franks’s body was found, and Leopold and Loeb knew their kidnapping charade was kaput. They destroyed the typewriter and went about their lives, as usual, thinking they committed the perfect crime.

As the investigation began, Loeb kept to himself where Leopold helped police and even offered to help. He even gave theories of what could have happened and was quoted saying “If I were to murder anybody, it would be just such a cocky little son of a bitch as Bobby Franks.”

Then things began to fall apart again. Found near the body was a pair of glasses. These glasses contained an unusual hinge mechanism that was quite expensive. Only three people in Chicago had purchased a pair of glasses such as these. One of which was Leopold. When confronted he said during a bird watching trip they must have fallen out of his pocket. But soon the destroyed typewriter was found by the police.

When questioned by police as to their whereabouts the night of the murder, they said they picked up two women and dropped them off by a golf course. However, their alibi was blown when Leopold’s chauffeur stated that the car was in the garage all night and being repaired.

It’s not surprising that Loeb confessed to the murder and kidnapping first. Loeb confessed that he was the driver and Leopold was the murderer. Then Leopold confessed but said he was the driver and Loeb was the murderer. Until this day, the details of who was driving and who committed the murder are refuted back and forth. But the common theory is the one listed above.

Now, onto the point of our blog: the trial. Once again the criminal defense lawyer was none other than Clarence Darrow. At this point, he had garnered a reputation for being the best criminal defense lawyer and was retained for $700,000.

Many people assumed that Darrow would go with a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity. Rather, he went for a guilty plea but ask the judge that rather than death penalty, to offer life in prison. Darrow’s speech during this trial is considered to be the highlight of his career with an overarching theme of inhumane methods and punishments of the American Justice system.

This 12-hour closing argument sparked a major reversal in America’s thinking about capital punishment and caused the overall number of executions performed in the country to decrease, which is why we believe that this is definitely one of the trials of the century.

 

Famous Trial: Big Bill Haywood

In order to fully understand the nature of this trial, let’s take a quick look at the circumstances leading up to it:

It begins in July of 1892 in Northern Idaho, during a worker’s strike of local miners because of their wages being reduced from 35 cents to only 30 cents. After discovering a company plant, angry union workers decide the best way to get their point across is to blow up a mill and hold captive non-union workers. Other union men commandeer a train and take over other mills in the area. The Governor of Idaho declares martial law and with the assistance of President Benjamin Harrison, the federal troops are sent in.

The Governor of Idaho declares martial law and with the assistance of President Benjamin Harrison, the federal troops are sent in. The Federal Troops arrest 600 union men and sympathizers where they are held with no charges and then released.  Union leaders are tried.

Two years later in 1894, 40 masked men assassinate John Kneebone, a witness against the union leaders. This forces President Cleveland to send more federal troops to occupy Idaho.

Tension like this continues over the next several years with more mining explosions more federal troops being sent it, with over 1000 union members and sympathizer being arrested as of 1899.

In the early 1900s, the violence continued; a train bombing killing non-union members and the governor of Idaho being blown to smithereens from a bomb planted in his home.

Now that we have some historical context, the next thing we must focus on is the investigation into the bombing of the governor of Idaho:

On December 31, 1905, a waitress from The Saratoga Hotel, remembers a visibly shaken Thomas Hogan after the explosion that killed the governor. A search of his hotel room shows traces of plaster of paris which was used to hold the bomb together. The next day Thomas Hogan (born Harry Orchard) is arrested for the murder of the governor.

The state of Idaho hires the best detective of the era James McParland. He meets with Orchard and offers a plea deal if he is willing to testify as to who hired him for the job.

After having a complete meltdown in prison on February 1, 1906, Orchard confesses to killing the governor as well as 17 other people on the behest of union members William Hayword, Charles Moyer and George Pettibone.

Aha! It’s all coming full circle!

After some ridiculous shenanigans of getting William Hayword back to Idaho (he was Colorado hiding out but was found), on May 9, 1907, Hayword stood trial for the murder represented by the criminal defense lawyer Clarence Darrow and Edmund Richardson.

On July 29, 1907, the jury deliberates for 9 hours and announces it’s decision.

Hayword is found NOT GUILTY.

How could this be? There has been much debate amongst historians. Some believe that it was Clarence Darrow’s eloquence while other’s believe that it was the prosecution’s failure to provide any evidence to Orchard’s claims against Hayword. And remember the burden is on the prosecutor to prove without a reasonable doubt that Hayword was guilty of ordering the murder of the governor of Idaho.

Reports from all over the country reported on Darrow’s skilled defense and his team’s ability to countering the witness is cross-examination. One reporter even wrote, “the greatest trial in modern times.” And that is precisely why it’s on his our list.

When Does Murder Become A Federal Crime?

According to the United States Constitution, criminal law is left to be handled by the individual States where the crime was committed. So for example, let’s say you kill someone in Florida and are caught, you will be tried under Florida’s criminal laws.

But did you know that there are 10 specific cases in which committing murder can be seen as a federal offense and therefore ultimately be tried in a federal court? Not that we condone murder in any way but here’s how murder becomes a federal crime:

  1. Murdering An Elected/Appointed Official Of The Federal Government – this includes the President, Vice-President, Congressman, Senators, Cabinet Members or Supreme Court Justice.
  2. Murdering A Federal Jude or Law Enforcement Official – this includes any judge servicing on the federal court as well as law enforcement officials like the FBI, CIA, DEA, etc.
  3. Murdering An Immediate Family Member of A Law Enforcement Official – you cannot threaten a law enforcement to drop their investigation by murdering their family.
  4. Murdering Someone With The Intent Of Influencing The Outcome Of A Court Case – you cannot kill jurors, witnesses, police informants or officers to help win your court case. It’s also a federal crime to kill someone in response to their testimony.
  5. Murdering Someone During A Bank Robbery – since bank robbery in itself is a federal crime, if someone is killed (civilian, security guard, etc) the criminal will be brought up on a federal murder charge.
  6. Murdering A Child With Ties To Rape, Child Molestation or Sexual Exploitation – if you have sexually abused a child and they are killed because of it or you murder them afterward that will lead you to a federal murder charge. 
  7. Murdering Someone Aboard A Ship – maritime law is tricky because the ocean is considered multinational but since you are crossing multiple state lines in some cases it becomes a part of interstate travel which is under Federal Jurisdiction.
  8. Murdering Someone For Drug Related Reasons – due to the country’s War on Drugs, drug related offenses have higher punishments and are prosecuted under federal laws.
  9. Murdering Someone Due To A Contract (Communicated Through Internet/Cell Phone) – since cell phone towers and internet lines cross state lines this falls under Federal Jurisdiction.
  10. Murdering Someone Due To A Contract (Communicated By Mail) – same reason as above.

For the record, MURDER IS A CRIME! We do not want anyone to commit these heinous acts. But in some situations, it becomes a federal crime where the punishment and sentencing are much more severe than if being tried in a state court. We are bringing these up in the event you watch Crime Dramas, you can impress all your friends and family with your knowledge of Federal Law.

10 Trials That Fascinated America

We stole this list from Mojo Jojo, who does a very good job of selecting a top 10. This is our precursor as we instead to go through each of these trails more in depth as continue to write more and more articles for this blog. There are some major accusations of cover-ups, biased media coverage, racial discrimination and so much for us to comment on.

10. Scott Peterson Trial
9. Mike Tyson Rape Trial
8. Clay Shaw Trial
7. Casey Anthony Murder Trial
6. Michael Jackson Molestation Trial
5. Marilyn Manson et al: LaBianca Tate Murder Trial
4. Impeachment of Bill Clinton
3. Timothy McVeigh: Oklahoma City Bombing Trial
2. Rodney King Trial
1. O.J. Simpson Murder Trial

You can watch the full video here: