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By David Staba

As the first morning of jury selection for the upcoming murder trial of James Charles Kopp concluded, the prosecutors and most of the 18 media types on hand for the proceedings filed out of Erie County Court Judge Michael D'Amico's courtroom.

While putting my jacket back on, I stopped to see if the sheriff's deputies assigned to escort the defendant would handcuff him. They did, tightly, behind his back. I put my notebook and pen in a briefcase and turned to head for the door.

Just then, Kopp hesitated on his way out the door reserved for lawyers, defendants and court officials and looked at me. He'd been calm and cordial all morning, greeting the pools of prospective jurors with a tight-lipped smile and a high-pitched "good morning" when Judge D'Amico introduced him and the other principals in the case to each batch of 50 citizens.

As Kopp looked my way, I realized there was nobody else left in the public area of the courtroom. His eyes widened a bit and he stopped. He glanced behind him, saw a deputy close behind, then back at me, then headed out the door.

Kopp, thin to the verge of gauntness, didn't look like the brooding, bearded man in the headshot that became so familiar during his four-year-plus manhunt following the Oct. 23, 1998 shooting death of Dr. Barnett Slepian.

Wearing a navy blazer, khaki pants, blue shirt and maroon tie (the same ensemble he's worn to just about every court appearance since France extradited him back to the United States), he didn't look like someone who reveled in his nickname within the militant anti-abortion community -- "Atomic Dog."

And though pictures from his courtroom entrance on the first day of jury selection showed him smiling, it was a flashing grin more nervous than cocky. He didn't look like someone who admits stalking Dr. Slepian for days, then hiding in the woods behind the obstetrician/gynecologist's home in suburban Amherst and ending his life with a single shot from an assault rifle.

With his day of legal reckoning at hand, James Charles Kopp just looked scared.

If Kopp and defense attorney Bruce Barket hoped to turn the streets outside his trial on two counts of second-degree murder into a circus of dueling protesters, a la 1993's Spring of Life, it isn't working.

At least not yet.

On the first morning of jury selection, four people handed out fliers reading "acquit baby defender James Charles Kopp."

Adrian Horien and his 14-year-old son, Alex, had driven from Rockford, Ill., over the weekend, stopping to pick up a pair of colleagues in Columbus, Ohio.

On Monday, with the mercury still below zero, Horien shared his views via bullhorn with pedestrians walking as fast as they could to their downtown offices and drivers snarled in morning rush-hour traffic.

He carried a sign promoting the "Army of God" Web address, but maintained that there is no such organization, that it's only the name of a site maintained by a loose collection of like-minded activists. The site features a list of doctors who perform abortions and other health-care workers who have been killed, along with a photo of Dr. Slepian's gravestone.

Horien didn't mind that much of the anti-abortion rights community has shunned Kopp since his confession.

"I say those pro-lifers are hypocritical," he said. "They value Slepian's life more than the babies."

One goal of the protests was to try and influence potential jurors entering the courthouse, Horien said. Barket has repeatedly told the media that he believes the jury's verdict will turn on members' feelings about abortion.

"If someone's pro-choice, they're going to have a hard time acquitting," Barket said. "If a juror is pro-choice, they're going to have a hard time convicting."

The defense and prosecution can each excuse up to 20 prospective jurors without cause. Otherwise, a juror is excused at the judge's discretion or if both sides agree. That virtually guarantees that some people on each side of the issue will wind up with a seat, and a vote.

While most passers-by tried to ignore Monday's protest, or offered the out-of-towners a few unfriendly words or an even more hostile hand gesture, Horien was undeterred.

"We presume they're going to be coming and going from the courthouse, so we hope that happens," Horien said.

Maybe they gave up, got frostbite or decided to save their energy for the trial itself, when more national media will surely be on hand, but Horien and his fellow protesters were nowhere to be seen on the last two days of jury selection.

For three days, deputies escorted groups of 50 or 60 jury candidates into D'Amico's courtroom. After explaining the basics of the case and issuing initial instructions, the judge asked for people for whom serving during trial would cause a personal or financial hardship.

"It's not a matter of if you want to be somewhere else, but if you need to be somewhere else," Judge D'Amico said.

About one-third of each group stayed behind to offer their excuses while the rest went to another courtroom, where they were given a 16-page questionnaire to fill out. After defense attorneys and prosecutors review their answers, the survivors will return for individual questioning this week.

Most people claiming a hardship had legitimate reasons. Some had jobs that wouldn't pay them for time on jury duty, or would only do so for three or five days, with the state only compensating them at a rate of $40 per day. The judge also excused a number of self-employed types, as well as several with medical conditions that prevent them from sitting for long stretches.

One man said he's getting married on May 10, and worried that the trial might last until then.

"If we go until May 10, I'll perform the wedding myself," said Judge D'Amico, who told each batch he expects the trial to begin on March 17 and last a maximum of three to four weeks. "If we go that long, we'll all take a break so you can go on your honeymoon."

Some of the dodges, though, barely reached the level of lame. One National Fuel Gas worker claimed that the utility couldn't possibly function without his computer expertise.

"Your company has 150,000 workers, and they can't survive without you?" the incredulous judge asked.

Then there were those who oversold their case. One manicurist would have gotten excused on financial grounds, anyway, but couldn't resist claiming her grandmother was dying, as well.

One woman said her husband had gone on disability, she also had to care for her elderly mother and she had recently returned to driving a school bus to help make ends meet.

"So there's nothing going on," Judge D'Amico said.

"Oh, no, there's plenty going on," she responded, showing the sense of humor for which school bus drivers are so well known.

"I know, I know -- I was just kidding," the judge said before excusing her.

But not everybody was trying to get out of serving. One man suffering from diabetes stayed behind to ask whether he could bring food or juice into the courtroom. When Judge D'Amico said he could, the man said he hoped to be selected.

Though more than a third of the pool was excused during the first three days, attorneys on each side said they expected to fill the jury box quickly.

"I think we're on track to pick a jury on time and start presenting our proof on March 17," said Erie County Assistant District Attorney Joseph Marusak.


Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 11 2003