American Show Trials

The Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been found guilty and the jury is now considering his fate, whether he will be condemned to death.

Tsarnaev trail has been a show trial very much in line with similar political spectacles dating back in the U.S. more then a century.  As a spectacle, these trials use the courtroom to mark an enemy in order to further a political agenda and reinforce an ideological message.

Four earlier show trials vividly illuminate this process.  Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket trial targeted radical trade unionists; the 1921 Sacco and Vanzetti in Dedham, MA, targeted anarchists; New York’s trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951 targeted communists; and the Chicago Eight trial of 1969 went after Vietnam protesters.  The current Boston Marathon bomber trial targets an apparent terrorist.  The shifting defendants in these trials reveal the changing terrain of U.S. social struggle.

Show trials have a long and suspect history.  The legendary trial of Galileo Galilei in the 1630s over his support of Copernicus’ theory that the earth revolves around the sun was a last-ditch effort by the Catholic Church to preserve a false concept of the universe.  In 1620, the Puritans landed in New England and during the period of 1647–1693 over 200 people were accused of witchcraft, tried and about 30 were executed.  Following the notorious Salem trials of 1692–1693, convictions and executions for witchcraft essentially ended.

Show trials are not limited to the pre-modern world or to the U.S.  In France, the Dreyfus trial took place in 1894. The infamous Moscow Trials of 1936-’38 were orchestrated so that the accused’s guilt or innocence was never in doubt, the outcome predetermined.  In December 1952, following a classic show trial, 11 Jewish members of the Czechoslovakian Communist Part, were charged with conspiring in plots against the government, found guilty of treason and hung in Prague.  As late as 1989, a Romanian military tribunal held a closed trial of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, and summarily executed them by firing squad.

Other examples of show trials can be found from throughout the world.  Their purpose is to send a powerful message and this is being done at the current Boston trial.

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The Boston Marathon bombing took place on April 15, 2013, and involved not only the actually bombing that killed three people and injured 264 others,
but the killing of an MIT police officer and a shootout with police in nearby Watertown, MA.  Not unlike the 9/11 attacks, the event — and the current trial — captured the nation’s attention, revealing the threat posed by so-called “lone wolf” radical jihadi.  (“Lone-wolf” terrorists like Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and Washington-area sniper, John Allen Muhammad, were tried, convicted and executed.)

The Boston bombers were Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, who was killed by the police in a shootout.  Tsarnaev’s lawyers’ requested that the trial be moved to Washington, DC, due to Boston’s perceived “overwhelming presumption of guilt.” Drawing from a pool of some 800 possible jurists, it seems incomprehensible that the good citizens finally chosen to serve on the jury did not bring their prior knowledge, beliefs and prejudices into the courtroom.  Nevertheless, Federal Judge George O’Toole ruled to keep it in Boston, the scene of the crime.  Massachusetts abolished capital punishment in 1984, but because the Boston bombing trial is being held in a federal court, Tsarnaev may face the death penalty.

The media covers each day of the trial extensively.  The bombing had gruesome consequences for those wounded and the federal prosecutors have taken advantage of every opportunity to detail autopsy findings (including showing photos), survivor testimony, bomb analysis and the Tsarnaev brothers’ links to al-Qaeda.  Media outlets offer day-to-day trial recaps.

Tsarnaev defense attorneys admitting his guilt and argued that, as the younger brother, he was led to participate in the bombing due the influence of his older brother.  The jury clearly didn’t agree and whether this argument will be sufficient to spare him from the death penalty remains to be seen.

Six decades ago, on Friday, June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted at the Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, NY.  They were the first civilians in American history to be executed for espionage.  The couple was, according to the New York Times, “stoic and tight-lipped to the end … .”  They “went to their deaths with a composure that astonished the witnesses,” it reported.

In 1995, the U.S. government released what is known as the Venona documents, files from a 50-year-long program run by U.S. Army Signal Security Agency monitoring Soviet telegram traffic.  The files revealed that an estimated 350 Americans had worked for the SU. Most disturbing, the federal prosecutors had the Verona information during the Rosenbergs trial and neither provided it to the defense nor presented it in court.  In all likelihood, the information would have spared both Rosenbergs’ lives, with Julius serving a long prison term.

Current scholarship suggests that Julius Rosenberg was likely a Soviet Union low-level operative who provided the SU with U.S. technical information but had no access to top atomic-bomb information.  More troubling, Edith Rosenberg was a prewar communist and, while generally knowledgeable about and sympathetic to her husband’s activities, seems to have been only marginally involved in his clandestine activities.  According to Morton Sobell, the Rosenbergs’ co-defendant, “the true reasons for Ethel’s arrest are at least partly accurate, as the prosecutors had hoped that threatening her with a death sentence would eventually pressure Julius to confess.”  Neither Rosenberg named names.

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Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been found guilty for the Boston Marathon bombing and the only question is whether he will receive the death sentence.

Reflecting on his conviction and sentence, Julius Rosenberg warned:

This death sentence is not surprising. It had to be. There had to be a Rosenberg Case because there had to be an intensification of the hysteria in America to make the Korean War acceptable to the American people. There had to be hysteria and a fear sent through America in order to get increased war budgets.

Such is the political rationale of show trials.

David Rosen can be reached at; check out

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out