Nearly 65 years after being convicted of conspiracy during the McCarthy era, a 98-year-old woman has asked that a federal judge throw out her conviction after previously sealed court documents appear to show that a key witness lied during testimony.
Miriam Moskowitz was found guilty in 1950 of conspiring with two men to lie to a grand jury investigating allegations of theft of U.S. atomic secrets. Now, she says, it’s time to set the record straight.
“I was made out to be a monster, and I did nothing wrong,” Moskowitz, a retired New Jersey math teacher, told The American Lawyer from her home in Washington Township, N.J. “All I want is to clear my name before it’s too late.”
Baker Botts New York partner Robert Maier, along with associates Guy Eddon and Joseph Perry, is representing Moskowitz on a pro bono basis. “She was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got sucked into all of it,” said Eddon.
Along with her photo, a front-page New York Daily News headline read on July 30, 1950, “REDS SMASH ON IN FLANK ATTACK, Nab Man, Woman in Spy Plot.” Moskowitz, then 34, served two years in federal prison and paid a $10,000 fine in 1950, roughly equivalent to $100,000 today.
However, Moskowitz has contended since that she was unaware of any alleged atomic espionage plot between her boss Abraham Brothman, with whom she had an affair, and his associate Harry Gold.
While working on a book about her case in 2010, Moskowitz said she found evidence in the form of secret grand jury testimony released following a 2008 judicial review that Gold, the key witness, had given conflicting testimonies during the trial and an initial FBI interview.
On the basis of that evidence, the Baker Botts team on Tuesday filed on her behalf in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York a petition for a writ of error coram nobis, a remedy of last resort for petitioners who are no longer in custody.
It argues that after being threatened with the death penalty by the prosecution, Gold changed his story during his testimony at Moskowitz’s trial. She never took the stand, fearing that her affair with Brothman would be exposed.
On Gold’s key testimony, both Moskowitz and Brothman were convicted and served prison terms. Harry Gold was also later convicted and sentenced to prison. Gold and Brothman are now dead.
“Had the jury seen and heard this key evidence, no reasonable jury could have believed Gold’s later testimony against Moskowitz,” the filing says. It goes on to call her felony conviction a “profound injustice” and a “fundamental error.”
A spokesperson for Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, declined to comment.
“I had never heard of coram nobis until [I got] interested in Miriam’s case,” said Eddon, who usually focuses on intellectual property litigation at Baker Botts. He read about U.S. District Judge Glasser granting a writ of error coram nobis in June and decided to pass the story along to Moskowitz, whom he happened to know from his youth in New Jersey.
Eddon played the cello and Moskowitz the viola in a quartet in New Jersey more than 20 years ago. At the time, he had no idea Moskowitz had a felony conviction and an alleged link to communist spies. (He learned about her past after reading a blurb in The New Yorker a few years ago about her book, “Phantom Spies, Phantom Justice.”) Nor did he have any idea that he would now be representing her in federal court.
It was the story of alleged “sex, lies and espionage” that helped sell the pro bono project to Baker Botts this summer, Eddon said.
Having never filed a petition with this type of request, Eddon has logged roughly 60 hours since early July exploring the case law, reading FBI reports and transcripts and searching for original documents stored in Washington, D.C., and the Columbia Law School library.
“[Guy] personally cares about the results of this petition,” said Maier, who has logged nearly 20 hours. “He has a stake in it and he’s trying to right a wrong … all that makes it more compelling.”
Moskowitz is looking forward to having her name cleared, even if it comes decades late.
“The entire course of my life has been affected by my conviction,” said Moskowitz, who never married or had children. She became a schoolteacher after serving time in prison, but always tried to distance herself from her past. “I’m really lucky that there are lawyers that saw a way to do this. It’s an act of bravery.”
Baker Botts has requested a hearing on the brief. U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein has been assigned to the case.