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Friday, August 22, 2014

Woman Seeks to Clear Her Name With Rarely Granted Writ


On Monday, The American Lawyer posted an article on its website about Miriam Moskowitz, who was convicted in 1950 on a charge of conspiracy in a case involving the theft of U.S. atomic secrets. Moskowitz has always denied that she had any knowledge of the espionage plot between her boss, Abraham Brothman, and his associate Harry Gold. In 2008, evidence uncovered in a judicial review showed that Gold’s testimony at trial conflicted with his earlier statements to the FBI. Moskowitz, now 98 years old, is attempting to use this newly discovered evidence to clear her name.   

The legal process by which she is doing so is known as a petition for a writ of error coram nobis. The Latin phrase coram nobis means “before us,” and refers to errors of fact (not of law) before the court. Coram nobis petitions are sometimes used to challenge the results of cases in which evidence was withheld by prosecutors. The writ is rarely granted in criminal cases, and has been abolished altogether in federal civil cases. (See Rule 60(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.) One famous instance of its use occurred in 1983, when a U.S. District Court granted the writ to overturn the conviction of Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American who had been convicted of evading internment during World War II. (The conviction had previously been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944).)

For more on writs of error coram nobis and the history of their use in U.S. courts, see this 2009 article from the BYU Law Review.

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