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McCarthy-era felon: Lies doomed me

The Los Angeles Times
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Ninety-eight-year-old Miriam Moskowitz is appealing her felony conviction for obstruction of justice in a 1950 case. She still lives on her own in Washington Township, N.J., on Nov. 7, 2014. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

WASHINGTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. — It was the summer of 1950, and Miriam Moskowitz was being followed.

The men stalked Moskowitz on the subway. They trailed her as she walked to the laundromat. They followed her on a date with her boss and secret lover, Abraham Brothman. They shadowed the couple as they drove in Brothman’s Pontiac from Manhattan to the Jersey shore.

Moskowitz knew from previous encounters that they were FBI agents and that they were interested in Brothman, a chemical engineer whose associates included an admitted Soviet spy named Harry Gold.

What Moskowitz didn’t know is that the FBI also had her in its cross hairs. Sixty-four years later, the 98-year-old retired teacher is battling to erase the conviction that has haunted her since the days of McCarthyism.

“I don’t like the fact that I’m a convicted felon,” said Moskowitz, who was found guilty of conspiracy to obstruct justice for lying to federal investigators who were looking into a suspected spy plot.

Newspaper clippings from her 1950 arrest show Moskowitz walking into court in Manhattan, beneath banner headlines blaring “Reds” and “Spy Plot.” One of the prosecutors at the time called her and Brothman’s case a “dry run” for the trial four months later of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of spying for the Soviets and then executed.

Moskowitz was sentenced to two years in prison.

“All the time I sat in jail and then in prison, I said I’m going to make these guys pay,” she said of the judge, the prosecutors, and the perpetrators of the system that convicted her. “That anger has lasted through the years.”

By returning to federal court, Moskowitz hopes to clear her name and to remind Americans of the horrors of the Red Scare, when U.S. paranoia fueled persecution of suspected Soviet sympathizers and spies.

Moskowitz says she was neither.

Her conviction, she said, was based on lies Gold told to save himself from the electric chair — lies that did not come to light until decades later, according to her attorneys.

It was not unheard of for people to lie to save themselves or their families from the anti-Communist witch hunts of those days. Nearly 50 years after the Rosenbergs’ trial, Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, David Greenglass, admitted that he lied about his sister’s involvement to protect his wife.

“People need to know about this history,” Moskowitz said. “This has to open up people’s minds. This has to make them think.”

In August, Moskowitz’s lawyers filed court documents seeking to clear her record. Among other things, the defense motion says that grand jury transcripts from 1947, which were sealed more than 60 years ago, show that Gold testified that Moskowitz knew nothing of his espionage activities.

The U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, said Moskowitz and her lawyers have cherry-picked details from the transcripts to “manufacture an inconsistency” in Gold’s testimony.

“Her claims, even if taken at face value, are insufficient to establish an error under today’s law, let alone the law when she was convicted in 1950,” the prosecutor said in a court document. It also said Moskowitz had not proved that her conviction had “significant and ongoing consequences.”

Moskowitz admits that most people do not know about her past. Her parents are dead. So are her three younger siblings and most of her friends.

Brothman, who was convicted of conspiracy at trial with Moskowitz, died in 1980. Gold, who served about half a 30-year prison term, died in 1972.

“They’re all gone,” Moskowitz said. “Nobody lives to be 98. I’m an anomaly.”

Moskowitz lives alone in a tidy house in a New Jersey suburb, where her only visible concessions to old age are a walker, a hearing aid, and a thick magnifying glass for reading.

She greets visitors with coffee and cookies and apologizes for not having baked muffins. She laments the news about Ebola and about midterm election results showing voters leaning to the right.

To an outsider, Moskowitz seems to have led a long and fruitful life, but she said the conviction has cost her dearly.

After her 1952 release from prison, Moskowitz landed a series of jobs, but her past always caught up to her, she said. FBI agents hunting subversives would come around trying to get information from Moskowitz. Bosses would get edgy and tell her to find work elsewhere.

She continued to see Brothman, who also was freed in 1952, but their relationship soured. The man she had been in awe of for his brains and lyrical love letters revealed his true self when they reunited after prison. “He embraced me and said, word for word, ‘I had a terrible time in prison.’ He never asked how it had been for me, so I knew,” Moskowitz said. “I knew we were finished.”

Unable to find steady work, she considered suicide.

Things turned around in 1970 when Moskowitz got a job teaching junior high school math in New Jersey. A longtime violinist and violist, she began playing in chamber orchestras.

“It was the greatest time of my life,” Moskowitz said, smiling at the memory. “I have never known such bliss.”

But Moskowitz still regrets that because of her felony record, she never got to serve on a jury. She shied away from serious romances out of fear that a boyfriend would learn of her past. She never married or had children.

“I would have wanted that very dearly,” Moskowitz said, looking around at a house filled with mementos.

“If it had never happened, I’d have had a houseful of children. By now, grandchildren, great-grandchildren,” Moskowitz said, sighing. “It would have been nice.”

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