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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rosenbergs' Fiercest Defender Dead at 84

LOS ANGELES -- Helen Levitov Sobell, who fought unsuccessfully to save the lives of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, then waged a massive and protracted campaign to free their co-defendant -- her husband, Morton -- from prison after his conviction in the notorious Cold War-era trial, has died.

A tenacious woman who overcame polio in her youth and earned a doctorate at 62, Sobell died April 15 in a Redwood City, California nursing home after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease. She was 84.

In 1951 she devoted herself to one of the most unpopular causes of her day: keeping the Rosenbergs out of the electric chair at the height of McCarthyism. After they became the first Americans executed for espionage, she focused her efforts on Morton Sobell, charging that the evidence against him was manufactured and that his 30-year sentence symbolized the excesses of Cold War mania.

"She tried to make sure her husband wasn't the forgotten man," said William Wolf, a New York film critic who handled publicity for the National Committee to Secure Justice for Morton Sobell, which she headed.

She organized mass meetings, led pickets outside the White House and traveled widely to solicit support, earning endorsements from such luminaries as Bertrand Russell and Pablo Picasso. She raised an estimated $1 million for her husband's fight, which included eight unsuccessful appeals.

She conducted these campaigns in defiance of the norms for women in the 1950s, balancing her activism against raising two children and struggling to maintain a relationship with her husband.

Both Sobells were involved in radical politics as members of the Young Communist League and had friends and relatives who were members of the Communist Party. However, each signed an oath denying any Communist connections while working at Reeves Instrument Co.

By 1950, the House Un-American Activities Committee was intensifying its search for subversives. Having perjured themselves by signing non-Communist affidavits, the Sobells knew they could be indicted.

In 1950 they decided to take the family to Mexico. Shortly after their arrival, they learned of the arrest of Julius Rosenberg, Morton Sobell's friend and former classmate.

The Sobells decided to return to the United States. But before they could leave, Mexican agents burst into their apartment and kidnapped Morton. He was transported to Texas where he was arrested on charges that he conspired with the Rosenbergs to commit espionage

Sobell took her husband's case to the court of public opinion, traveling around the world to garner support -- and being ejected from France twice in the process.

The Sobells' marriage broke up in 1980, 11 years after Morton was ordered released from prison by a U.S. Court of Appeals. He had served 18 years, with credit for time served.