Robert Meeropol: “The death penalty is about coercion, not punishment”

30 September 2016

It was 1953. Accused of passing on the secret of the atomic bomb to the USSR, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg where executed in the United States. Their son, Robert Meeropol, has been working for many years to re-establish the truth. While in France he agreed to answer our questions concerning the Rosenberg case and his work against the death penalty.


Who are you Mr Meeropol?

My name is Robert Meeropol but I was born Robert Rosenberg. My parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed when I was 6 years old, supposedly for stealing the secret of the atomic bomb and giving the information to the Soviet Union. I was adopted after my parents were executed which is when my name was changed.

When I was older, I threw myself into a campaign to have my parents’ file reopened. I was about 20. I ended up going to law school and becoming a lawyer. Then I founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children which responds to the educational and emotional needs of the children of activists who are under threat in the United States.

What have you discovered by reopening your parents’ file?

Over the last few years, we have found new elements which explain a lot of things, particularly about my mother, Ethel Rosenberg. She was accused of being an atomic spy for the USSR but the reality was much more complicated than that. We are certain today that my father was part of a group of young people providing information to the USSR during the Second World War to help them fight the Nazis. My father was therefore a spy but it was not the atomic bomb; it was what’s called industrial military espionage: electronics, aviation techniques, etc. The kind of thing which is important when you are at war. He was therefore guilty of something. And if he had been sentenced to 5 or 10 years in prison, I probably wouldn’t have had anything to complain about. I could have contested the decision because he was my father but that’s another story. On the other hand, the same proof shows that Ethel Rosenberg was not a spy. The only reason she was arrested was because the authorities wanted to force my father to cooperate. They used my mother as a lever to manipulate him. And that is another strong argument against the death penalty: it is often used not as a punishment but as coercion. The only reason why my parents were sentenced to death, and this is a widely admitted fact, was to force them to cooperate and give names. Simply put: “talk or die”. And they refused. So they were killed.

But the proof which shows the innocence of my mother is particularly convincing. That led us, my brother and I, to appeal to the Obama administration to have my mother exonerated before the end of its mandate. Just like the Governor of Massachusetts claimed in the 1970s that the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti were unjustified and that any stigma should be removed from their family. We have also put a petition online (LINK). We will put up there all the information proving the innocence of our mother.

How did you come to take action against the death penalty?

To begin with, I wasn’t against the death penalty. Everyone thinks that because of the execution of my parents I have always been an abolitionist. But, at the time I thought that my parents had been victims of judicial murder and I was in favour of executing those responsible for that murder. Until the day I went to law school. Then I realised that giving the State the power to kill its citizens is a very dangerous thing. One of the big problems with executing people is that once you’ve made a mistake, you can’t go back. But saying “we should not kill people because they may be innocence” is not really an argument against the death penalty. It leaves open the possibility of executing the people we know are guilty. It was only later in my life, and particularly with the work I did for the World Congress Against the Death Penalty, that I came to see executions as a human rights violation. That’s how I came to see it: as a barbaric act.

You support Mumia Abu-Jamal. Have you met him?

I worked with Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights (LINK) at the end of the 1990s. I got in touch with them to defend the cause of Mumia Abu-Jamal. I was particularly moved by his case because he was the first political prisoner in the United States to fear an execution since my parents.

I realised that 10 years earlier Mumia had interviewed me when he was still just a young radio journalist from Philadelphia. He had asked me: “Do you think that a case like your parents could happen again?” We agreed that it could; it was still possible. And not only has it happened but it has happened to him. So I started to work to prevent his execution and that took me to the 1st World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Strasbourg.

How do you formulate your work against the death penalty?

What I am particularly interested in is the issue of the children of executed people. A side event was dedicated to this at the Oslo World Congress but I think that it would merit being a central issue. For two reasons: firstly, it is about the issue of justice. With each execution, we create a new class of victims: the family of those who are executed. The children are clearly innocent in this story and yet they are punished, in a way, as severely as their parents. Second reason: it is an intelligent strategic axis because children create empathy. This is the angle I am concentrating on within the framework of my work against the death penalty. Here’s an example to demonstrate how much the issue of children is neglected: we know that there are more than 3000 people on death row in the United States. How many of them have children? We don’t know! How many children does that represent? 100? 1,000? 3,000? Almost nothing has been written on the impact of the death penalty on children.