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By David Staba

On Friday, James Charles Kopp got his chance to explain to the world why he killed Dr. Barnett Slepian, his opportunity to explain the cause to which he devoted his adult life.

In exchange for that forum, he gave up his right to a jury of his peers.

After Kopp asked for a rarely used bench trial in which the defense and prosecution agreed to the basic facts of the case, defense attorney Bruce Barket said his client didn't want his message to get buried under a mountain of testimony.

His stipulated facts trial ended with a predictable conviction on one count of intentional murder, giving Kopp the forum he sought, one free from the pesky defense objections and cross-examination by what he considers a lesser mind that would have come along with testifying in his own defense at trial.

Since taking the case last fall, Barket repeatedly called Kopp a "hero."

Friday, in the spotlight for which he conceded at least 25 years in prison, Kopp showed himself to be a lot of things -- intellectually dishonest, manipulative, stunningly arrogant and far less than eloquent -- but heroism took the day off.

Kopp's voice -- one reminiscent of Marvin the Martian in old Bugs Bunny cartoons -- swelled at certain points, as if he expected Erie County Court Judge Michael D'Amico and the packed courtroom to erupt in a spontaneous ovation. When he didn't get the reaction he expected, or at least hoped for, he'd get lost and fumble through his notes, or pause while he shuffled through a manila envelope stuffed with papers.

Swimming in the same oversized overcoat and rolled-up khaki slacks he's worn to each court appearance, Kopp fumbled his way around, rhetorically speaking, for a full 90 minutes.

He started logically, explaining the seed of his extremism when he described seeing an aborted fetus in 1980. Then it was off to the strange world in which James Charles Kopp chooses to live.

Kopp cited random biblical passages and quoted theologians, in each instance interpreting nebulous dogma as justification for stalking a man for days, then hiding in the darkened woods behind his house and severing his spine with a single shot from a Soviet-made assault rifle with his family a few feet away.

He told apocryphal stories of unwilling mothers held down on tables while the fetuses they carried were forcibly aborted by bloodthirsty doctors. He even cited, as fact, the old urban legend about shadowy satanic cults killing babies and drinking their blood, though his point there was even more unclear than the rest of his oration.

He tried to link Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger with the thoroughly discredited eugenics movement of the early 20th century, which sought to "improve" the human race through selective breeding and forced sterilization. He echoed the misconstrued quotes and flat-out fabrications used by more mainstream anti-abortion activists to attack Planned Parenthood, going so far as to draw comparisons between Sanger and Adolf Hitler.

Sanger, though, got off relatively light in comparison to Slepian himself. Kopp called the day after the 1998 shooting, when he said he was stunned to find out that the doctor had died, "the saddest day of my life." But his grief didn't prevent Kopp from disgracefully putting words in the mouth of the man he murdered. In an attempt to smear his victim as a racist, Kopp replaced the word "misery" with "minority" in a passage from an interview Slepian gave to his niece before he died.

Kopp's manufactured Slepian quote was part of the closest thing he had to a central theme amidst the babble -- that legalized abortion is part of a racist conspiracy to continue the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Hitler's Nazi Germany.

"This is a continuation of the Holocaust," Kopp said. "It didn't end in 1945."

A man who spent most of the evening he died in a synagogue would seem an unlikely Nazi sympathizer, but in the World According to Kopp, anything is possible. And twisting history was a large part of the foundation of his defense.

During his summation, pre-sentencing statement and while talking with reporters between and after court sessions over the past three months, Barket regularly invoked the name of John Brown, the militant abolitionist who led a rather pathetic raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859. The raid flopped and Brown was arrested, convicted and hanged.

"At the time, John Brown was viewed as a terrorist and murderer," Barket said. "When he was hanged, a militia was formed because the authorities were afraid his supporters would come and free him. John Wilkes Booth was a member of the militia.

"We now see John Brown as a hero, and we see Booth as an assassin. We've completely forgotten about the judge and prosecutor in that case."

D'Amico was unmoved by Barket's version of history and Kopp's version of reality, imposing the maximum sentence of 25 years to life.

"With regards to your comparison to John Brown, I'll take my chances," the judge said after passing sentence.

Abolitionists wrote a catchy tune about Brown, and its melody was adopted for the Battle Hymn of the Republic. And his actions helped polarize an already divided nation over the issue of slavery.

But a hero? Apparently they have a different definition of the world in Long Island, where Barket hails from, than where I grew up.

Before Harpers Ferry (part of a delusional plan to steal federal weapons and give them to slaves), Brown led a murderous attack on a pro-slavery settlement in the territory of Kansas, with he and his followers hacking five men to death, some of them in front of their families. If that's the historical company Kopp wants to keep, well, bless him.

"Jim Kopp is a hero, and today will leave him a martyr," said Barket.

Nobody's going to write songs about Kopp, or create Messianic images of him like the ones of Brown that you see in history books (he doesn't have the cool long beard, for one thing).

Martyrs are generally people willing to die for their cause. Kopp was not only unwilling to die, from the beginning of his crusade he did everything in his power -- forging dozens of fake IDs, keeping his true identity a mystery from nearly everyone and his location and activities secret from his own family before shooting Slepian, then running away after -- to keep from being caught.

There's one thing heroes and martyrs have in common, regardless of their causes -- they're very rarely cowards. And for all Barket's grandiose analogies and his client's righteous claims, Kopp's 90 minutes alone in the spotlight on Friday showed him to be nothing more than that.


Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com May 13 2003