Young Justice Department analyst and alleged Soviet spy, Judith Coplon, claimed that top secret information found in her possession the night of her arrest in Manhattan was background material for a novel she was writing based on her own life at the time, a life lived in the nation’s capital in the heat of the Cold War. The prosecution claimed something quite different: Judith had planned to pass the information to an alleged Soviet agent, a Russian engineer working at UN headquarters in New York.
Author and former FBI agent Thomas Mitchell was involved with the Coplon case and believed from the outset that the accused was guilty of spying for Russia. Author Marcia Mitchell believed that she was framed by the FBI and found evidence suggesting that such was the case. Each set out to prove the other wrong, and thus began more than ten years of extensive research that took the couple across the country and across the world, eventually to Moscow and the world of the KGB.
From the moment of her arrest, the entire country was mesmerized by Judith Coplon, a beautiful young woman, the seemingly patriotic, wholesome daughter of a war veteran known as “The Santa Clause of the Adirondacks. To the public, she was either America’s girl next door, wrongly accused, or the “Mati Hari in bobby sox” who should be executed.
Out on bond and awaiting trial, Judith, followed everywhere by an eager paparazzi, became the most sought-after celebrity in America. To the public, she was either a victim of “Cold War hysteria,” wrongly accused, or the “Mati Hari in bobby sox,” who should be executed.
Judith Coplon’s trials were the most colorful, most bizarre in the history of American jurisprudence. Two trials and two appeals, questions about double jeopardy, conflicting higher court decisions, a madcap defense attorney, a celebrated prosecutor, and a senile judge provided media fodder for a public that couldn’t get enough of their “Judy.”
Adding to the intrigue was the unexpected release of classified FBI files that revealed secrets of film stars, heads of state, and even Pentagon officials. One revelation led a young lawyer to suicide. The twist and turns in the case, where some of the good guys were bad and some of the bad good, made for a story Tom Mitchell described thusly:
"The case had all the elements of a fiction writer’s dream, of the idea espionage script: a beautiful but innocent looking female subject; the international intrigue of a mysterious informant; possible compromise of the government’s most sensitive counterespionage information; and sophisticated (for that period) technical surveillance of the subject’s most personal conversations and activities."
It was that “sophisticated” technical surveillance that began a still-unresolved battle over when and if wiretapping of American citizens is legal.
It took eighteen years for the books to be closed on the Coplon case. A record.
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