On December 4, 2014, the oldest living victim of the McCarthy era paranoia that gripped America in the 1950s went to court to vacate her 64 year old conviction and restore her good name. Miriam Moskowitz and her lover, Abraham Brothman, were convicted on November 28, 1950, for conspiring to obstruct justice in the same courthouse where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg would soon be put on trial for treason for giving secretive atomic bomb information to the Soviet Union. Moskowitz was sentenced to two years in prison. Her trial judge, Irving Kaufman, also handled the trial for the Rosenbergs who were executed in 1953.
Throughout her prison term, she thought everyday about how she was going to make the prosecutors, judge, and others involved in her conviction pay for their wrong doing. At 98 years of age, almost 64 years after her conviction, Moskowitz is the only one alive to tell her story.
At the age of 34, Moskowitz, a secretary, became involved with a married man, Abraham Brothman, a chemical engineer whose known associates included Harry Gold, a U.S. citizen and admitted Soviet spy. The Red Scare was front page news. The FBI began following her while they brought in and interrogated Brothman and Gold, trying to tie them together as co-conspirators involved in espionage with the Soviet Union.
Gold initially told the FBI that Moskowitz was not involved in any espionage. To escape the electric chair, however, Gold agreed to deal and described Moskowitz as a co-conspirator along with Brothman. Her conviction was solely based on the grand jury statements and FBI interviews with Harry Gold that were not available to her original attorneys for use in cross-examination.
Moskowitz believed she was innocent and refused to testify before the grand jury because it would expose her relationship with the married Brothman. At the trial, Brothman and Moskowitz were charged with conspiring to lie to the grand jury and federal agents investigating a suspected spy plot involving Gold. Later Gold was charged with espionage. Brothman and Moskowitz were found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison. Gold was sentenced to 30 years but served only 15 years because he testified against the Rosenbergs.
After their release from prison in 1952, Moskowitz and Brothman broke up, and her life as a convicted felon began. Hounded and harassed by the FBI, Moskowitz couldn’t keep a job because agents constantly questioned her activities and patriotism. She “found it painful to reveal [her] past” and tried for decades to maintain a “low social profile” to avoid drawing attention to herself. Finally, desperate and depressed, she contemplated suicide.
Her life finally took a turn when she got a job as a junior high school math teacher in 1970. A longtime violinist and violist, she began playing in chamber orchestras. “It was the greatest time of my life. I have never known such bliss,” Moskowitz said. She told the Los Angeles Times that she still regrets that she was never able to serve on a jury, never had any serious romances, and never had any children.
“I would have wanted that very dearly. If it had never happened, I’d have had a houseful of children. By now, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. It would have been nice.”
In 2008, over the United States’ objection, the grand jury minutes exposing the deal and initial investigation of Gold were ordered unsealed because of their “substantial historical importance.” In the minutes, Gold claimed Moskowitz was not involved. In August, 2014, Moskowitz petitioned the court to have her felony conviction vacated because the soon-to-be Rosenberg prosecutors had withheld critical grand jury testimony relating to the only witness that would testify against her during trial—Harry Gold. According to the papers filed with the court, Moskowitz did not discover the contradictions in Gold’s damming testimony against her until 2010 when she was doing research for her 2010 book, Phantom Spies, Phantom Justice, about her case.
The petition that Moskowitz filed described how her shame of the conviction kept her from marrying and having friends. The trial and its aftermath changed the course of her life. “I was portrayed as a monster, and I did nothing wrong,” she said, “and it affected my relationships, my entire life.” Her petition read, “The Court has the opportunity to correct a miscarriage of justice from the McCarthy era, of which Ms. Moskowitz is perhaps the last living victim.”
Moskowitz explained why she wanted her conviction overturned. “I am probably the last living victim of the McCarthy era. I am a generous law-abiding citizen, and I don’t want this to be the end of how I am regarded.” In response to Moskowitz’s plea to the court to act “ before it is too late” and “correct this historical wrong by vacating the conviction,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara filed opposition claiming that Moskowitz had not established an error in 1950 trial, “let alone an error of the most fundamental character.”
Ignoring the idea that Gold had admitted lying to the FBI about Moskowitz’s knowledge or involvement, the government continued to rely upon Gold’s admittedly false testimony to uphold the conviction. Dismissive of the claim that the government withheld evidence from Moskowitz at trial, Bharara claimed that at the time of her trial and conviction there was no obligation by the government to disclose prior witness statements or turn over exculpatory evidence. The government’s position was that she suffers no greater disability than any other felon.
Miriam Moskowitz did not seek money from the government as a result of her conviction. She only wanted to clear her name.
“The trial was held at the height of the McCarthy period, when people were simply not rational politically,” Moskowitz said. “The prosecutor saw a golden opportunity to rack up a conviction on his credit, and he went to town.”
After hearing oral arguments on December 4, 2014, District Judge Alvin Hellerstein ruled that Moskowitz’s lawyers could not show the newly released records that might have exonerated her. The government said her conviction was supported by the evidence. “Too bad,” Moskowitz said as she walked out of the court with a cane. “My 98-year-old life goes on, and it’s not affected.” She told a film crew, “Okay, that’s the end. You can finish your documentary now.”
“People need to know about this history,” Moskowitz said. “This has to open up people’s minds. This has to make them think.” Miriam Moskowitz is right. Hatred and suspicion now sweeping throughout the United States will most surely lead to more lives destroyed and justice denied unless the perpetrators are stopped.