<<Home Niagara Falls Reporter Archive>>


By David Staba

The script seemed inevitable.

Despite his admission that he shot Dr. Barnett Slepian on Oct. 23, 1998, James Charles Kopp was going to get on the stand and tell 12 jurors that he had done the right thing.

As a defense strategy, it was a legal Hail Mary -- attempting to convince anyone that the supposed evil of abortion left him with no choice but to stake out the obstetrician's Amherst home for several days, lie in wait in a wooded area behind the Slepian house and shoot the doctor while he warmed a bowl of soup in his microwave with his family a few feet away. And that he had no intention of killing anyone when he aimed that assault rifle.

But Kopp was ready to make that case over the course of a trial that would last three weeks or longer, with the help of Long Island attorney Bruce Barket, who shares his views on abortion, and noted Buffalo defense attorney John Elmore, who doesn't.

Until last Tuesday. Against the advice of Elmore, as well as John Nuchereno, an independent counsel appointed by Erie County Judge Michael D'Amico, and the judge himself, Kopp opted for the rarely traveled route of something called a stipulated bench trial.

Maybe Kopp was discouraged by finding little sympathy for his plight among the 400-some questionnaires filled out by prospective jurors the week before. Or maybe he was disappointed by the complete lack of protesters outside the courthouse after the first day of jury selection. Or maybe he thinks his upcoming trial on federal charges that he violated a clinic-access law by killing Slepian would be a better stage to rail against the legality of abortion.

Whatever the case, the length of Kopp's state murder trial shrunk from up to a month in the national spotlight to a few hours, even shorter than the most famous previous proceeding to take place in what is now D'Amico's courtroom -- the 1901 murder trial of President William McKinley's assassin, Leon Czolgosz.

Less than a month after he killed McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, it took two days to try and condemn Czolgosz. If D'Amico takes longer than that to issue a verdict after reviewing a 30-page synopsis of the case agreed upon by prosecutors and Barket and hearing the summations of both sides, that alone will rank as a major upset.

Elmore asked off the case after the judge accepted Kopp's waiver of his right to a jury trial.

"There is little I can do to assist Mr. Kopp and Mr. Barket, and I disagree with the procedure," Elmore said after Tuesday's court session. "If you strongly disagree with the direction your client wants you to take, you have an obligation to withdraw."

Even Barket wouldn't say whether he agreed with Kopp's decision, other than to say, "Jim believes that he's better off doing things this way."

Asked why he decided to remain on the case, Barket cited the defense attorney's credo.

"It's something Jim wants to do, and I'm not going to walk away from him," Barket said. "He's standing virtually alone, and he's not going to be alone as long as I'm alive and kicking."

Whatever you think of defense attorneys in general, or Kopp's case in particular, there's something admirable in that. The American justice system relies on vigorous representation of both sides, regardless how vile the alleged acts of the defendant. John Adams, the second president of the United States, once said his greatest contribution to his country was defending the five British soldiers who opened fire on a crowd of colonists during the Boston Massacre of 1770.

That's one element that makes the system work. And in Kopp's case, it's working. Just not the way anyone expected, and in a fashion almost no one understands.

Dr. Slepian's widow, Lynne, made her first courtroom appearance of the trial Tuesday, sitting in the first row of the gallery, behind the defense table -- about 15 feet from the man who admitted shooting her husband 4 1/2 years ago. Kopp frequently looked around the courtroom, including at the row in which she was sitting.

She was surrounded by family members, as well as representatives from the U.S. Attorney's office and FBI. While Kopp's waiver eliminates any witness testimony in his state trial, Mrs. Slepian will get her opportunity to tell him and the court the impact of his actions on her and her children during the sentencing phase if D'Amico convicts him, as well as during the federal trial, assuming that gets to a jury.

Mrs. Slepian didn't speak to the media after Tuesday's developments, in keeping with the silence she's largely maintained since her husband's death.

But she made her feelings quite clear in one of the few interviews she has granted, with the Buffalo News shortly after Kopp's March, 2001 capture in France: "I'd like to see him dead."

That's not an immediate possibility, due to the extradition agreement between the United States and France. If he finds Kopp guilty on one or both of the second-degree murder charges, Judge D'Amico has an available sentencing range of 15 years to life to 25 years to life.

At least one element of suspense remains. Barket wouldn't comment on whether or not the stipulated facts submitted to Judge D'Amico would include evidence on a series of non-fatal shootings of doctors who perform abortions that took place from 1994 to 1997. Doctors in Hamilton, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Rochester were shot, each in late October or early November.

The shootings stopped after Kopp fled the United States following Slepian's death, and Kopp has been charged in the Hamilton sniper attack.

Barket did speculate on why the defense might want such seemingly damning evidence included. Or not. "It cuts both ways -- on the one hand, you have four other people who were shot and lived," Barket said. "On the other hand, you've got someone who shot five people, and that's not the type of person a trier of fact normally acquits."

Some legal observers had believed the federal charges were a legal backup in case Kopp was found not guilty on the state murder counts. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Mehltretter said the federal case won't be affected by last week's developments, regardless of Judge D'Amico's verdict.

"The federal government is going to proceed as planned and prosecute the case to its fullest extent," Mehltretter said, adding that a status hearing before U.S. District Judge Richard Arcara is scheduled for this Thursday.


Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 18 2003