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.
Named Counterintelligence of the Year, 2002 by the prestigious Association of Former Intelligence Officers. This Cold War espionage misadventure mesmerized the country as much as did the Rosenberg case that followed a year later. It had much of the country demanding death for the beautiful 27-year-old Department of Justice “girl next door” accused of spying for Russia, while others insisted that she had been framed by the FBI. There was evidence, uncovered by the authors, that both were correct. Her trials in New York and Washington turned into circuses that made her a media darling, more popular than top film stars of the day.
More than sixty years after her arrest, Judith Coplon, whose story once mesmerized an entire nation, is again making news. Coverage of her recent death, appearing in major media from coast to coast, has it wrong. They report a significant historical and political goof—that Judith’s “conviction had been overturned” and thus, that one of America’s most colorful, most controversial spies died an innocent woman.
In reality, there were two convictions; the one in New York was indeed overturned, but the other, in Washington, D.C. was not. Sadly, the charismatic, still beautiful Judith, died a convicted spy.
"This thoroughly researched and passionately presented account of an American tragedy has the power of embolden We the People to pursue justice if we read it and learn its lessons."
Ramsey Clark, former Attorney General of the United States.
"Marcia and Tom Mitchell using primary sources weave a tapestry of treason, espionage, and counterintelligence that skillfully tells the story of Judy Coplon and her battle for freedom. It is wonderful reading and a major contribution to the literature of intelligence."
Hayden Peake, former CIA agent and co-author of The Private Life of Kim Philby.
"Reads like a Hitchcock thriller…a riveting tale of espionage and intrigue, with all the twists and turns of both a maze and a first-class mystery novel. Because it’s a true story, it will frighten you, fascinate you and send shivers up your spine, and, most of all, keep you turning the pages until you reach its final word—freedom."
Robert Osborne, Hollywood Reporter, and host of Turner Classic Movies
Marcia's favorite Coplon video. No audio