Judy Coplon was a communist
when she graduated from Barnard College during World War II. She soon
went to work for the Justice Department as an analyst, and for the
Soviet NKGB as an agent. In 1948, she appeared on the FBI’s radar
screen— special agents observed her meeting repeatedly in New York with
an officer of the MGB, as the service was then known. In 1949, both
were arrested and Coplon endured two trials. Her defense: she was
meeting a Soviet intelligence officer because she was writing a book
and gathering firsthand experience during pillow talk. She was
convicted twice: Neither the juries nor the appellate judge believed
But at the outset, Marcia Mitchell did. Coplon, she concluded, was a victim of anti-communist hysteria,
and she would prove it. Only after doing the research for this book
did Mitchell realize that, despite what she called “perjured testimony
from FBI special agents” and a “lack of physical evidence,” Coplon was
co-author and husband, retired FBI special agent Tom Mitchell, held
different views before and after working on the book: Coplon was
guilty—the evidence made that clear. Novelists do not execute lengthy,
complicated, anti-surveillance maneuvers with classified documents in
their possession before meeting with Soviet espionage officers. He
agreed, in part, about the lack of physical evidence—Coplon never
produced any book notes, a book outline, or a manuscript. However, he
took a more sanguine and realistic view of the perjury claims. In the
context of the times—more than 50 years ago—he concluded that the FBI
agents were merely evasive, as directed.
Nonetheless, Judy Coplon walked! How could this happen? The Mitchells provide the answers.
A Colossal Case of Denial
After her second trial, Judy Coplon married one of her lawyers, whom
she convinced of her innocence. In the tradition of Alger Hiss, to
this day they adhere to this position, despite overwhelming evidence to
smoking-gun evidence of Coplon’s guilt became public in 1995 when the
VENONA decrypts were declassified. These intercepted MGB cables
described real espionage cases and provided clues to nearly 200
Americans who were spying for the Soviet Union—the Rosenbergs, Klaus
Fuchs, and Ted Hall, to name just a few. Originally decrypted by the
Army in the late 1940s, they revealed that Judith Coplon had indeed
been a very productive Soviet agent, originally recruited by a college
classmate, Flora Wovschin. Analysis of the VENONA intercepts suggests
that some of the material that Wovschin passed to the Soviets came from
Coplon. Coplon’s first Soviet handler was one of the MGB’s most
important officers, Vladimir Pravdin;  later
she was turned over to Valentin Gubitchev, with whom she was arrested.
Without the VENONA breakthrough, Coplon probably would have escaped
In order to protect the
sensitive VENONA project, the decrypts could not be produced as
evidence at trial. But they could be used as a basis for action. The
FBI put Coplon under surveillance and bugged her office and home to
collect corroborating evidence. Not wishing to admit to the bugging,
which was continued after her arrest and included conversations with
her lawyer, the source was euphemistically identified in court as a confidential informant.
The FBI soon learned from the confidential informant
that Coplon was having an affair with a Justice Department lawyer who
later became part of the prosecution team at her trials. Coplon
admitted, under oath that she had spent the night in a Baltimore motel
room with the lawyer, but she denied sleeping with him. The admission
had nothing to do with her espionage charges but did influence
judgments about her credibility and moral character—she also claimed to
be having an affair with Gubitchev at the same time.
surveillance established that she was in regular contact with an NKGB
officer in New York City, the FBI planned to arrest them when she
passed classified documents to him. However, two problems arose.
First, at the time of arrest, she had not passed the documents,
although they were in her possession. Second, she was arrested without
a warrant, although the FBI had had plenty of time to get one. These
details would figure significantly in her appeals.
describe the two bizarre trials in great detail. For legal reasons,
Coplon was first tried alone in Washington, DC. For financial reasons,
she accepted the pro bono
offer of an inexperienced buffoon of a lawyer, Archie Palmer, whose
eccentric behavior was tolerated by a feeble-minded judge.
Nevertheless, Palmer managed to raise the specter that the evidence
from the confidential informant was in fact from illegal
telephone taps. Then, over the strenuous objections of the FBI, he
succeeded in getting raw FBI data collected on many famous people
admitted as evidence, although they had nothing to do with the case. Actors Frederick March, Helen Hayes, Danny Kaye, and Edward G. Robinson, inter alios,
were mentioned as members of the Communist Party—although they were
not. Singer Paul Robeson and writer Dalton Trumbo were similarly
identified—and they were. Needless to say, none of them were pleased
with the testimony and the newspapers went ballistic. All this circus
started long before Senator McCarthy began his notorious hearings.
Palmer lost the case for Coplon, the alleged telephone taps became a
major element in the second trial in New York, when Coplon and her case
officer, Gubitchev, were convicted together. 
During the first trial, FBI special agents had denied direct knowledge
of the taps. At the second, however, one of them admitted that taps
had been used to collect evidence presented at trial. Later, the
authors found a memorandum acknowledging the recordings and indicating
that they had been intentionally destroyed to avoid having to reveal
Coplon appealed the verdicts of
both trials. The appellant judge in New York concluded that it was
clear from the evidence that she was guilty, but the FBI had lied under
oath about the bugging. Moreover, he wrote, the failure to get a
warrant was not justified. He overturned the verdict, but the
indictment was not dismissed. In the appeal of the Washington trial,
the verdict was upheld, but, because of the possible bugging, a new
trial became possible. For the political and evidentiary reasons
discussed by the authors, it never took place.
Was Justice Served?
The authors have done a superb job of researching this famous case.
And although their decision not to include endnotes is impossible to
comprehend,  they did indicate in the text the major sources used.
Of greater importance, the Mitchells leave no room for doubt as to
Coplon’s guilt, although they cannot explain her adamant and persistent
claims of innocence. Coplon refused any direct comment, but her
husband was interviewed at length. Curiously, even after he learned
about the VENONA decrypts, he could not bring himself to accept the
truth and lamely asserted the pathetic rationalization that the FBI
must have manufactured the decrypts to show that it had been right all
give some sympathetic attention to the impact of the trial on Coplon
and her family. At one point, they conclude that since there was “no
proof of espionage,” she “should never have been tried.” Such liberal
wishful thinking does not stand up to the evidence that they themselves
present. Then there is their portrayal of Coplon as an “all American
girl next door,” albeit a promiscuous communist. Her family did have
difficulty finding money for bail and the press attention was no doubt
abhorrent—too bad. Subsequently, we are told, she “lived life as a
model citizen, raising a family of decent, law-abiding children, and
serving her community.” But was she really “severely punished” for her
crime by the “anguish suffered” during the 17-year wait for the third
trial, until the government officially decided to drop the case in
1967? The authors conclude that she was. But they discount essential
features of the argument: Coplon lied to the FBI, her lawyers, her
family, her friends, her children, and her husband, and she betrayed
her country. Moreover, she brought it all on herself when she
enthusiastically spied for the Soviets during and after World War II.
Then, when she was caught, she took hypocritical advantage of the very
system of justice she was trying to eliminate.
notorious story is a major part of counterintelligence history and the
Mitchells have brought it to life in vivid terms. It is a great read.