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Jury selection begins for anti-abortion activist's trial

Defendant accused in sniper killing of doctor

From Phil Hirschkorn

James Charles Kopp
James Charles Kopp

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• Federal indictment: U.S. v. Kopp  external link
• N.Y. indictment: People v. Kopp  (FindLaw, PDF)external link

BUFFALO, N.Y. (CNN) -- Jury selection began Monday for the murder trial of anti-abortion activist James Charles Kopp, who is accused of the sniper-style shooting of Dr. Barnett Slepian in 1998.

Kopp, 48, who was a fugitive for two-and-a-half years, will be prosecuted on state charges carrying a maximum of 25 years to life in prison, though he will later face federal charges for allegedly using deadly force against an abortion provider.

Slepian, 52, an obstetrician and gynecologist who also performed abortions at a women's health clinic, was gunned down by a single shot from a high-powered rifle fired at night from the woods behind his home in suburban Buffalo.

The .30-caliber bullet pierced a kitchen window as Slepian, at home with his wife and four sons, stood warming up soup. The bullet entered his back, causing internal injuries from which he died that night.

The gunman buried the rifle, a pair of gloves and a baseball cap in the woods about 140 feet from the Slepian house. Investigators found the items six months later.

The FBI said in court documents that a man matching Kopp's description bought the weapon a year earlier from a pawn shop in Nashville, Tennessee.

Hair fibers from the cap matched DNA extracted from a toothbrush at the Jersey City, New Jersey, residence Kopp had last lived in, where investigators also found a piece of paper with Slepian's name and office number, according to the FBI.

Fibers from the gloves matched the carpet in Kopp's black Chevrolet, and residents of Slepian's neighborhood said they saw a car resembling Kopp's in the days before the shooting, according to the FBI.

Kopp abandoned the car at Newark Airport before fleeing to Mexico and then overseas, according to testimony in the pretrial hearing.

Charged in absentia

In 1999, state and federal prosecutors filed charges in absentia against Kopp, and the FBI placed him on its "10 Most Wanted" list.

Kopp lived incognito in England, Scotland, and Ireland, sleeping in hostels and working odd jobs, including as a clerk for a hospital in Dublin, according to law enforcement sources who outlined his movements before his arrest.

By early 2001, Kopp had settled in southwestern France, eluding authorities with the help of a Brooklyn couple who were also anti-abortion activists.

Loretta Marra and Dennis Malvasi sent Kopp cash and messages while he was on the run. They have pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and are not expected to testify against Kopp.

Responding to a tip from FBI agents tracking Marra and Malvasi's e-mail, French police arrested Kopp in March 2001 outside a post office in Dinan, France, as the fugitive went to retrieve a package sent by the New York couple.

France extradited Kopp to the United States in June after being assured that he would not face the death penalty, which France has abolished.

Kopp has pleaded not guilty to a second-degree murder charge and says he has committed no crime.

'I regret that he died'

In his only jailhouse interview, however, Kopp told reporters Dan Herbeck and Lou Michel of The Buffalo News that he shot Slepian in an attempt to wound him and deter him from performing abortions.

"The truth is not that I regret shooting Dr. Slepian. I regret that he died," Kopp told the reporters in November.

Herbeck and Michel have been subpoenaed as prosecution witnesses.

Slepian's widow, Lynn, who has never talked publicly about her husband's killing, is also expected to testify.

Slepian and Kopp lived at flash points in the debate over abortion rights. Slepian had long been a target of anti-abortion protests in the Buffalo area; Kopp was a well-known activist who had been arrested dozens of times around the country since the mid-1980s for civil disobedience actions at abortion clinics.

Because of pretrial publicity over the past four-and-half years and the contentious abortion issue, a pool of 300 jurors will fill out questionnaires.

Next week, the court will question potential jurors in hopes of seating a jury by March 14 and hearing opening statements March 17. The trial is expected to last a month.

Kopp is also under indictment in federal court for violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and committing a violent act with a gun. No date has been set for a federal trial.

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