Guilty Verdict in Killing of Abortion Provider

New York Times/March 19, 2003
By Lydia Polgreen

Buffalo -- The man who hunted down and killed an obstetrician who performed abortions in a suburb near here was convicted of murder today after a highly unusual one-day, juryless trial. It took the authorities more than four years and an international manhunt to find the defendant, James C. Kopp, a longtime abortion opponent with links to some of the most extreme anti-abortion groups, and put him on trial.

But it took Judge Michael L. D'Amico of Erie County Court less than 24 hours to find Mr. Kopp guilty of second-degree murder for killing the doctor, Barnett A. Slepian, with a single shot fired from a high-powered rifle. The bullet pierced the doctor's kitchen window and killed him as he emptied his pockets onto a desk after coming home with his wife and four sons from a memorial service for his father at the family's synagogue on Oct. 23, 1998.

Today's verdict was strangely anticlimactic, a subdued end to a case that made world headlines and came to symbolize a national debate over abortion that turned violent for several years in the 1990's. Dr. Slepian was the last of seven Americans killed then in attacks on doctors or abortion clinics.

"This amounted to an assassination for religious reasons," said Joseph J. Marusak, the deputy district attorney in Erie County, after the verdict. "That's terrorism."

Mr. Kopp, a quiet, lanky man who was nicknamed Atomic Dog in anti-abortion circles for his persistence and aggressive tactics, still faces federal charges in Dr. Slepian's killing. He has also been charged in the nonfatal shooting of an abortion doctor in Canada, and officials in both countries have labeled Mr. Kopp a suspect in three other shootings of abortion providers.

Mr. Kopp, 48, will be sentenced on May 9 to a minimum of 15 years to life in prison and a maximum of 25 years to life. Prosecutors said they would seek the maximum penalty.

Mr. Kopp showed no sign of emotion as the verdict was read. When the judge left the courtroom less than two minutes later, Mr. Kopp sat down, smiled at his lawyer, Bruce A. Barket, and shook his hand.

Lynne Slepian, the doctor's widow, who sat just behind Mr. Kopp, smiled and talked with family members and supporters, saying she was relieved that the trial was over.

Mr. Barket said afterward that he would appeal, and added that Mr. Kopp would speak at the sentencing. "Jim and I were disappointed by the verdict but not shocked by it," Mr. Barket said.

Judge D'Amico ruled that Mr. Kopp had intentionally killed Dr. Slepian, 52, and rejected an alternative charge that Mr. Kopp had killed out of "depraved indifference to human life."

In a single-day bench trial on Monday, the defense argued that Mr. Kopp had shot Dr. Slepian in the hope of merely wounding him and making him unable to abort fetuses the next day. But the prosecution countered with a litany of evidence portraying a man who meticulously planned to kill, not maim.

Mr. Kopp bought a Soviet-made assault rifle under a false name, and used full-metal-jacket bullets that tore into Dr. Slepian, obliterating two inches of his spine. After the bullet struck him, the doctor fell to the floor as his wife and four sons crouched over him, desperately trying to stanch the flow of blood gushing out of him.

The long-awaited trial had been expected to become a forum on abortion and an opportunity for opponents of the procedure to test before a jury the legal theory that killing a doctor who performs abortions is justified. Legal experts, however, were doubtful that a judge would allow such a defense.

Abortion rights advocates were also looking forward to the trial, hoping it would expose what they believe is a vast network of people who helped Mr. Kopp and who planned to recruit others to harm abortion doctors if Mr. Kopp was convicted. A Brooklyn couple, Dennis J. Malvasi and Loretta C. Marra, have been charged with giving Mr. Kopp money and support before his arrest.

But both sides' hopes were dashed when Mr. Kopp decided last week, after jury selection had begun, to waive his right to a jury trial and seek a shortened bench trial. Rather than filling a month with dramatic testimony and pointed cross-examinations, the trial took only a day and consisted of a dry recitation of the evidence by a prosecutor, followed by closing arguments.

Vickie A. Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, said today that she was pleased that Mr. Kopp was convicted of murder, but disappointed that prosecutors were not able to cross-examine him.

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

The short trial did, however, provide a fascinating account of the shadowy life Mr. Kopp led as a roving anti-abortion activist, moving from town to town, assuming multiple identities and making friends among fellow travelers. Over the years, Mr. Kopp had made dozens of fake identification papers, lied many times about who he was and worked at odd jobs to support himself.

Mr. Kopp was something of a cult hero in radical anti-abortion circles until he confessed to killing Dr. Slepian in a jailhouse interview last November with The Buffalo News. But he never found open support from mainstream anti-abortion groups, which praised today's verdict.

"We unconditionally condemn violence of this kind, and it's a sad and tragic episode," said Clarke D. Forsythe, president of Americans United for Life, an advocacy group based in Chicago. "We hope that this is the last such incident in our history and that this serves as a warning to others."

The case's quiet end in some ways symbolizes the shift in tactics among those who seek to end legalized abortion. Gone are the days of large demonstrations and blockades at clinics, as abortion opponents make inroads in their legal and legislative efforts to chip away at Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that recognized a woman's constitutional right to end her pregnancy, said David J. Garrow, a legal historian at Emory University, who supports reproductive rights.

Mr. Garrow said Mr. Kopp, in waiving a jury trial, may have wanted to spare the anti-abortion movement days of wrenching testimony describing how he killed Dr. Slepian just as it celebrated the Senate's passage of a bill banning a type of late-term procedure that opponents call partial- birth abortion.

But Mr. Barket said his client opted out of a jury trial because he worried that his voice would be drowned in a surfeit of prosecution evidence.

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