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Abortion Foe Says Slaying Was Unintended

James C. Kopp meant only to wound a Buffalo, N.Y., doctor in 1998, his lawyer argues. The trial of the onetime fugitive is finished in one day.

March 18, 2003|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

BUFFALO, N.Y. — James C. Kopp shot, but only intended to wound, a local abortion provider in order to save the lives of unborn children, his lawyer said Monday during a one-day murder trial.

"He acted on their behalf," attorney Bruce A. Barket told the judge who will rule in the case. "He acted ... for the right of life."

Barket said Kopp confessed to shooting Dr. Barnett Slepian because he "wanted to set the record straight."

"Use of force to save unborn children is obligatory and permissible ....He did not want people out there to see him as a passive symbol of resistance," the lawyer said.

Slepian, a gynecologist and obstetrician, was killed in October 1998 by a single shot from a high-powered rifle fired through his kitchen window.

Two weeks after the attack, a warrant was issued for Kopp -- a veteran of numerous protests who was known as "Atomic Dog" by the antiabortion group Army of God. He was charged with murder, placed on the FBI's most wanted list and captured in France in 2001 after an international manhunt.

Kopp, who was neatly dressed in a blue jacket and tan pants, walked into the courtroom Monday in handcuffs. In a front row, Slepian's widow, Lynne, sat with her mother and a group of friends.

Preparations had been underway for a jury trial when Kopp stunned even some members of his defense team -- two of his three lawyers resigned -- by deciding to waive a jury. Judge Michael D'Amico advised the defendant, who could face 25 years to life if convicted of intentional murder or murder with depraved indifference to human life, to abandon the maneuver.

As part of the extradition agreement with French authorities, prosecutors had agreed not to seek the death penalty.

But Kopp persisted.

In his closing argument Monday, Barket explained that his client had adopted the witness-free strategy "to take some of the emotions out of the case," which he hoped to turn into a forum on abortion.

But Joseph J. Marusak, a deputy district attorney for Erie County, argued Monday that Kopp, 48, had killed "brazenly" and had committed "an act of religious terrorism."

"He took the role of police, prosecutor, judge, trial jury and executioner all to himself," the prosecutor charged.

Kopp, he said, had carefully prepared to attack Slepian: by jogging near his home to gather information, practicing at shooting ranges and purchasing the murder weapon using an alias.

"You saw the size of those bullets," he told the judge as the cartridges were shown on a screen in the courtroom. "It is ... designed to punch through people, punch through walls. That is a killing bullet."

Before making his closing argument, Marusak read a 35-page document that laid out evidence he would have presented at trial, including expert FBI testimony stating that DNA evidence found at the crime scene matched a toothbrush Kopp used, clothing he wore and samples taken from his car.

As the killing of her husband was described and pictures of the crime scene were shown, Lynne Slepian put a hand to her mouth and her eyes filled with tears.

On the other side of the courtroom, a small contingent of antiabortion activists sat in the front row. Kopp greeted the group with a smile.

During breaks, debate raged in the hallway outside the courtroom.

"We need to determine who else may have assisted him, so the network will not help the next person to take his place," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, which tracks violence against abortion providers.

"He did not murder anyone. He defended the innocent," said the Rev. Michael Bray, leader of the Army of God. "He killed a murderer. I can't condemn that kind of direct action. It is justifiable."

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