10 Last-minute Stays of Execution

The Reprieve That Wasn't
Bound for separate cells, handcuffed Julius Rosenberg and his wife, Ethel, share a fervent kiss in a prison van outside Federal court after arraignment on atomic spy charges in 1950. © Bettmann/CORBIS

In the spring of 1951, Julius Rosenberg and his wife Ethel were sentenced to death for passing atom bomb secrets to the Soviet Union, a crime that federal Judge Irving Kaufman called "worse than murder" [source: Linder]. But the couple continued to protest their innocence, and waged a desperate legal battle to stay alive, gaining several stays of execution in the process. Finally, in June 1953, it looked as if their luck had run out, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a petition to review their case.

With the Rosenbergs scheduled to be executed in three days, their attorney submitted new papers to one of the Supreme Court's justices, William O. Douglas, a strong civil libertarian. Douglas spent 12 hours in his study alone, pondering the Rosenbergs' longshot argument that the penal provisions of the Atomic Energy Act had been improperly applied. On the day before their execution date, he shocked the nation by granting a stay. Douglas then left Washington on a vacation trip, thinking that the court would hold off action for a while.

Instead, Chief Justice Fred Vinson immediately summoned him back for an unusual emergency session of the court the next day, and by a narrow 5-4 vote on June 19, 1953, set aside Douglas' stay [sources: Walz, Huston, Wasby]. The Rosenbergs were executed at Sing Sing prison that evening. Ethel had to be electrocuted twice because her heart was still beating after the first electrocution. Doubts about their actual guilt or innocence continue to this day.