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Judith Coplon dies at 89; Justice Department employee accused of being a Soviet spy

Judith Coplon, a former Justice Department employee who became a sensation in 1949 when she was accused of being a Soviet spy, has died. She was 89.

Coplon, who in later years went by her married name, Judith Socolov, died Saturday in a New York City hospital, said her daughter, Emily Socolov.

As a 28-year-old Justice Department employee, Coplon was caught with secret U.S. documents at a meeting with a Russian agent on a Manhattan street. She claimed she was meeting him only because she loved him, but she was found guilty at two trials.

The convictions were overturned, and the cases were eventually dropped.

Coplon, who was born in Brooklyn on May 17, 1921, had won a citizenship award in high school. She came to the attention of the FBI when agents intercepted Soviet cables between KGB stations in Moscow and New York that made them believe that she was an agent code-named "Sima."

"She had a job right there in the Justice Department, so it became a high priority for the FBI because this was someone in their own shop," Cold War historian John Earl Haynes said. "This was a time when there was something of a drought in terms of KGB sources, and it turned out she was one of their most productive agents."

The FBI arranged for a fake but important-looking document to be fed to her. "She immediately said she had to leave Washington to see her family in New York, and about two dozen FBI men followed her," said Haynes.

The FBI tracked Coplon to a meeting with Russian agent Valentin Gubitchev and found she had the fake document — and some real ones.

At her first trial, she claimed she was meeting Gubitchev because they were in love and was not planning to give him the documents. But he was married, and prosecutors brought out that she had spent nights in hotels with another man at around the same time.

Haynes said Coplon's real motive was ideological. He said she was a member of the Young Communists while at Barnard College — which her family disputes. Emily Socolov said her mother was "completely operating on principle, purely her idealism for peace and justice."

Coplon was convicted of espionage in packed courtrooms in Washington and New York, but judges eventually threw out the convictions on grounds including lack of a warrant and illegal wiretaps. The FBI had been unwilling to reveal the Soviet cables in public, so the juries never heard about "Sima." One appeals judge said Coplon's "guilt is plain" even as he overturned her conviction. Haynes said her connection with Soviet spying was further proved with the release of documents in 1995.

He said Coplon's was "almost a textbook case of how American criminal justice and counterterrorism don't mesh well together."

The government never retried her but didn't officially drop the case until 1967, by which time Coplon had married one of her lawyers, Albert Socolov, and had four children. Her husband, children and grandchildren survive her.

She later earned a master's degree in education and became an expert in bilingual education and literacy, her daughter said.

"She never talked about it," Emily Socolov said of the spy controversy, except in the context of the causes she supported throughout her long life after the trials: racial equality, women's rights, "the idea that people would help one another."

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