By Jim Fitzgerald
Friday, March 4, 2011; B05
She was young and smart and claimed she was in love, and when Judith Coplon was accused of being a Soviet spy in 1949, she became a sensation.
A 28-year-old Justice Department employee, Ms. Coplon had been caught with secret U.S. documents at a meeting with a Russian agent on a Manhattan street. She said 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. Ms. Coplon married one of her attorneys, raised four children in Brooklyn, N.Y., and became an educator and supporter of literacy.
She died Feb. 26 at age 89 in a Manhattan hospital. No cause of death was reported.
Americans had just begun hearing about Alger Hiss and Russian espionage when the FBI intercepted Soviet cables between KGB stations in Moscow and New York that made them think that an agent code-named "Sima" was Ms. Coplon, who had won a citizenship award in high school.
"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," said Cold War historian John Earl Haynes. "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, co-author of "Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America."
The FBI tracked Ms. Coplon to a meeting with Russian agent Valentin Gubitchev and found that she had the fake document - and some real ones.
At her first trial, she said 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 about the same time.
Haynes said Ms. Coplon's real motive was ideological. He said she was a member of the Young Communists while at New York's Barnard College - which her family disputes. Ms. Coplon's daughter, Emily Socolov, said her mother was "completely operating on principle, purely her idealism for peace and justice. She was never self-serving."
Ms. Coplon was convicted of espionage in packed courtrooms in Washington and New York, but judges eventually threw out the convictions on grounds that included 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 Ms. 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.
The government never retried her but didn't officially drop the case until 1967, by which time Ms. Coplon was Judith Socolov and had four children in a Brooklyn brownstone.
She married one of her attorneys, Albert Socolov, who survives, along with their children.
Once her youngest child was in school, she received a master's degree in education and became an expert in bilingual education and literacy, her daughter said.
- Associated Press