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“River of Fire”: In New Memoir, Sister Helen Prejean Reflects on Decades of Fighting Executions

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The Trump administration is moving ahead with plans to resume the death penalty after a more than 15-year moratorium. This week Attorney General William Barr proposed fast-tracking executions in mass murder cases, and last month ordered the execution of five death row prisoners beginning in December. The federal government has executed just three people since 1963 — the last being in 2003. The death penalty is widely condemned by national governments, international bodies and human rights groups across the world. Experts say capital punishment does not help deter homicides and that errors and racism in the criminal justice system extend to those sentenced to death. We speak with Sister Helen Prejean, a well-known anti-death-penalty activist who began her prison ministry over 30 years ago. She is the author of the best-selling book “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty,” which was turned into an Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. …

Eisenhower denies the Rosenbergs clemency, Feb. 11, 1953

President Dwight D. Eisenhower
On June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage under the U.S. Espionage Act of 1917. 

Members of the Communist Party, the Rosenbergs had been convicted of passing secret information in 1945 about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. 

Their case remains a cause célèbre, with assertions that their prosecution and conviction reflected Cold War hysteria and did not warrant the death penalty.

One of the first decisions facing newly elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican and World War II military leader, was whether to grant executive clemency to the Rosenbergs, sparing them from being put to death.

On this day in 1953, Eisenhower declined to do so, stating: “The nature of the crime for which they have been found guilty and sentenced far exceeds that of the taking of the life of another citizen; it involves the deliberate betrayal of the entire nation and could very well result in the death of many, many thousands of innocent citizens. By their act these 2 individuals have in fact betrayed the cause of freedom for which free men are fighting and dying at this very hour [in Korea].”

Eisenhower continued: “We are a nation under law and our affairs are governed by the just exercise of these laws. The courts have provided every opportunity for the submission of evidence bearing on this case. In the time-honored tradition of American justice, [a] freely selected jury of their fellow-citizens considered the evidence in this case and rendered its judgment.

“All rights of appeal were exercised, and the conviction of the trial court was upheld after full judicial review, including that of the highest court in the land. I have made a careful examination into this case and am satisfied that the 2 individuals have been accorded their full measure of justice.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg
“There has been neither new evidence nor have there been mitigating circumstances which would justify altering this decision and I have determined that it is my duty in the interest of the people of the United States, not to set aside the verdict of their representatives.”

At about 8 p.m., Julius Rosenberg, 37, was executed at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, N.Y. A few minutes after his body was removed from the execution chamber, Ethel Rosenberg. 35, was strapped to the same electric chair. She was pronounced dead at 8:16 p.m. 

Both Rosenbergs refused to admit any wrongdoing and proclaimed their innocence up to the time of their deaths. Their sons, Michael and Robert, survived them.

In 2014, 5 historians wrote that newly available Soviet documents show that Ethel Rosenberg hid money and espionage paraphernalia for Julius, served as an intermediary for communications with his Soviet intelligence contacts, relayed her personal evaluation of individuals whom Julius considered recruiting, and was present at meetings with his traitorous sources.

Source: “This Day in Presidential History,” by Paul Brandus (2018)

Source: politico.com, Andrew Glass, February 11, 2019


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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