The execution of Rachel Meeropol's grandparents in 1953 resonates in her work as a lawyer today
NEW YORK - Her last year at New York University law school, Rachel Meeropol spent a semester working at a legal clinic in Alabama that represented prisoners on death row. Her client, she says, was typical: poor black man, borderline retarded, convicted of killing a white woman, represented by incompetent trial counsel. With Meeropol's help, the inmate is now serving a life sentence without parole.
"Given my background, it's not surprising I would be anti-death penalty," she says. "When the state executes anyone, it's simply perpetrating another crime. It doesn't create any justice. I think what happened to my grandparents is criminal."
Meeropol is the youngest grandchild of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 for conspiracy to commit espionage for the Soviet Union. Rachel's father, Robert, was 6 when his parents went to the electric chair at Sing Sing prison, becoming the first US civilians to be executed in a spy case. History has cast serious doubts on Ethel's conviction, which was based largely on the perjured testimony of her brother. According to declassified Russian documents, Julius may have been a spy.
The two orphaned boys - Robert and his older brother Michael - were adopted by Abel and Anne Meeropol, and grew up in comfortable anonymity. As adults, both settled in Springfield, Mass., where their own children were taught to fight injustice and question authority.
Rachel was born in 1975, shortly after the brothers went public in a book titled "We Are Your Sons." Now 31, she is a staff attorney at the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights, founded during the civil rights movement. She's been named one of the best "40 Under 40" lawyers by the National Law Journal, one of the "Fab Fifty" top young litigators by American Lawyer magazine, and is co-editor of "The Jailhouse Lawyer's Handbook," for prisoners without an attorney.
On a recent day in the center's lower Manhattan office, Meeropol, dressed in jeans and sneakers, spoke about the family legacy that led her to social justice law. Her office is a clutter of books, files, and a photograph of the 2004 Red Sox celebrating their World Series win. Given her family history, one of her legal projects is an irony her grandparents might appreciate: She is suing President Bush, the FBI, CIA, and others, alleging that they are spying on her and fellow attorneys at the center. Specifically, the suit states that the government's use of warrantless electronic surveillance in its war against terrorism has curtailed communications with clients.
"This has huge implications for attorneys here at CCR," Meeropol says. "We have to depend on the confidentiality of communications with our clients. If you can't use the telephone or e-mail, it makes communications, especially in a foreign country, very hard."
Because of the fear of eavesdropping, she says she's flown to Egypt to see her clients a couple of times - an expensive and time-consuming task. Those clients include Muslim non-Americans who were picked up in the post-Sept. 11 security frenzy and held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Meeropol is the lead attorney in Turkmen vs. Ashcroft, which alleges that the men, who had overstayed their visas, were the victims of racial and religious profiling.
"They took people off the streets and disappeared them," says Meeropol, who specializes in prisoners' rights, immigration, and First Amendment law. "No one knew where they were being held, and they weren't allowed contact with the outside world."
Her clients, she says, were beaten and taunted, shackled, locked down for 23 hours a day, subjected to strip searches, and denied contact with the outside world. "They came here to make better lives for themselves and to send money back home," she says, adding that they worked as cab drivers, in delis, and other small businesses.
The government has since acknowledged that they were not terrorists and deported them. A federal judge dismissed the challenge to the roundup and detention but allowed the claims of abuse, poor prison conditions, and profiling to go forward. Both sides are appealing, and arguments are expected to be heard by spring.
Meeropol sees discomfiting parallels in what happened with her grandparents and "the repressive targeting" of Muslims a half-century later.
"A lot of people have drawn comparisons between the 1950s and today, and certainly I think that the repression being visited on 'suspect' communities - then communists, now Muslim non-citizens - is closely analogous," she says. "With my grandparents specifically, as compared to the 9/11 detentions, you can see how in both situations, the government relied on public fears to justify extremely harsh treatment."
An early startRachel and her sister, Jennifer, 34, were brought up in a liberal household in Springfield, where as youngsters they accompanied their parents to political demonstrations. Their father runs the Rosenberg Fund for Children, which helps children whose parents have been persecuted for their activism. Jennifer, who wrote her senior thesis at Harvard on Ethel Rosenberg, works for the foundation; Rachel is on the board.
"It's something that's important to the whole family," Rachel says. "I think what my father does is amazing. He's taken the legacy of what happened to his parents and turned it around. He calls it his form of constructive revenge." Her mother, Elli, is a nurse who writes fiction, often about the intersection of politics and family life.
Their daughter attributes her own politics to both her grandparents' legacy and her parents' example. "I think you can say my passion for social justice grew out of a profound sense of injustice," she says.
Sometimes that injustice was writ small. As a child, whenever she'd object to a parental edict, Rachel would dress in blue pants, blue sweatshirt, and a blue blanket tied, cape-style, around her neck. She'd grab a homemade sign and picket outside her parents' bedroom: "Unfair to Pre-Teens!" Her self-imposed nickname was "The Blue Avenger."
Meeropol always had a flair for the dramatic, with lead roles in Shakespeare productions at Springfield Central High School: "heroines, villains, and jokers," as she puts it. It was, she says, good practice for her courtroom career.
"She always had a very well-developed sense of what was fair," her mother says. Their home included framed photos of the Rosenbergs, and an artist friend was once so struck by the strong resemblance between Rachel and her grandmother that he painted a portrait of the girl standing near Ethel's picture.
Robert Meeropol believes his daughters learned two things from their family history: "The first one is be very skeptical of what the government tells us because they often lie, and the other is to have a strong sense of social justice not only in the big political sense but also in the repercussions all those big social issues have on individual lives."
A tenacious spiritMeeropol lives in Brooklyn with her boyfriend of eight years, Tomas Hunt. They met as counselors at Camp Kinderland, a leftist "red diaper" camp in Tolland, Mass., where the cabins are named after activist heroes such as Emma Lazarus and Paul Robeson. She spent seven summers there and included it in her senior thesis at Wesleyan University, "Playing With Politics: The Transformation and Appropriation of Politics and Social Belief From One Generation to the Next." Hunt, who is from New Hampshire, works in education policy at the New York State Public Advocate's Office.
At work, her boss says that her passion for political cases, her courage and tenacity have been a boon for the center. "Her work embodies a spirit of justice, a spirit of accountability that was sorely missing with the way that her grandparents were handled, and I think Rachel's commitment to social justice stems in very large part to righting the wrongs that the government is making," says CCR executive director Vincent Warren.
Still, "as radical as her politics are - and happily so," Warren says, Meeropol is a careful, measured litigator. "She will only put her name on something she knows will be able to stand up in court."
Meeropol says her grief and anger over the Rosenbergs' fate have largely dissipated, replaced by her passion for civil liberties. "I think I'm doing work my grandparents would have been proud of," she says.