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By David Staba

Shortly before his mini-trial for the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian, James Charles Kopp hinted that he knew exactly what he was doing in choosing a legal strategy with which at least two-thirds of his defense team disagreed.

When asked if he thought Erie County Court Judge Michael D'Amico had settled on a verdict before being presented with a "stipulation of facts" that compressed weeks of testimony into a single 35-page document, Kopp gave one of those dorky grins that dotted each of his court appearances over the last three weeks.

"I've got a guess, sure," Kopp said.

Judge D'Amico quickly corrected the defendant, but given Kopp's published admission to stalking the Amherst doctor for weeks before ending his life with a single shot from a high-powered rifle, there was no realistic call to be made except the one issued from the bench the next day -- "guilty as charged on the first count of the indictment, intentional murder in the second degree."

Defense attorney Bruce Barket ended the anticlimactic one-day proceeding with a half-hearted summation. Kopp said he didn't mean to kill the gynecologist/obstetrician who performed abortions, so he couldn't be guilty of intentional murder. Kopp should be believed regarding his intentions, even though he had repeatedly claimed innocence after his arrest, which followed a 2 1/2-year flight that took him to Mexico, Ireland and France.

As for the second count, which the judge dismissed in declaring Kopp guilty of intentional murder, Barket argued that aiming a .762x39 millimeter Russian-made rifle at Slepian from 35 yards away somehow didn't qualify as depraved indifference to human life.

No, Kopp knew he was going down, but his supposed direct line to God prevented him from pleading guilty. After all, if he was doing the Almighty's bidding, how could he be committing a crime?

By waiving a jury trial, Kopp avoided cross-examination if he took the stand, preventing prosecutors from delving into such still-unanswered questions as how he settled on Slepian (his story about picking Slepian's name from a list of abortion providers in the phone book was disproven when prosecutors pointed out that no such list exists in any area directory), as well as who might have helped him escape the scene (one prosecution witness would have testified that a man fitting Kopp's description got into the passenger side of a car that sped out of Slepian's Amherst neighborhood minutes after the shooting).

He also preserved the one thing he seems to crave -- a chance to explain why he's right, and the law and everyone else, save a smattering of equally militant anti-abortion loyalists, are not only wrong, but stupidly so.

At some point between attaining a master's degree in biology and devising his perverse version of Catholicism, Kopp apparently believes he attained the sort of enlightenment most of us never achieve. His published admission and courtroom demeanor oozed the arrogance of the self-righteous, as did the post-verdict statement issued via Barket.

"He wanted to ask the question of society, 'What are you going to do to protect babies?'" Barket said moments after Judge D'Amico announced his verdict.

Kopp will get his chance, free of cross-examination, to share his rationale for protecting unborn babies by assassinating adults at his May 9 sentencing hearing.

As well as intentional murder, Kopp was guilty of lousy timing. Ten years ago, or even two, his trial would likely have drawn the sort of glaring media spotlight he sought, with stories about his trial featured on the front pages of the nation's newspapers and providing fodder for the blathering heads of the cable news channels.

But with war imminent and fears of another terrorist attack mounting, Kopp went from headline to footnote. There was plenty of media there for his abbreviated trial, but only a handful of activists from either side of the abortion issue.

His only vocal supporter was Rev. Michael Bray, the pastor of a Reformist Lutheran Church in Bowie, Md. And even he didn't bother sticking around for Tuesday's verdict.

Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, said her organization issued a warning to its member physicians across the country on the morning of the verdict, citing a pattern of violence against abortion providers immediately following such a conviction. She also expressed hope that the charge of preventing clinic access against Kopp still pending in federal court would follow a more traditional route.

"I would like to see a full-blown trial and see him take the stand and have access to information that may come out to help us prevent this from happening again," Saporta said.

Two days after his conviction, Kopp made his first court appearance as a convicted murderer at a status hearing in the federal case before U.S. Magistrate Judge Hugh Scott. The hearing was adjourned until May 12, three days after his sentencing.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Mehltretter, lead prosecutor in the federal case, said the federal case amounts to a legal backup, in the event his state conviction is overturned on appeal. Also, the federal charge carries a maximum of life without parole, a possibility not available to D'Amico when he passes sentence.

"The reason the federal government would proceed would be to ensure that there's an appropriate sentence and a conviction that would withstand any appeal," Mehltretter said.

In his summation, Assistant District Attorney Joseph Marusak carefully dissected most of the assertions in Kopp's published confession, then attacked his supposed religious justification.

"I'm a good Catholic," Marusak said. "I never heard that papal pronouncement. 'Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.'"

Marusak scoffed at Barket's comparison of Kopp to Catholic martyrs like John Fisher and Thomas More.

"That's an insult to Catholics," Marusak said. "That's an insult of the highest magnitude."

After D'Amico's verdict, Marusak succinctly summarized the prosecution's case.

"This amounted to the equivalent of assassination for religious reasons," Marusak said. "That's nothing more than terrorism."

Counting the lunch break and a brief afternoon recess, Kopp's murder trial lasted a bit less than five hours. The most famous previous trial in D'Amico's courtroom, at the time a State Supreme Court venue, was the 1901 trial of Leon Czolgosz. The assassin of President William McKinley was convicted and sentenced to die in only two days.


Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 25 2003