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Anti-abortion extremist Kopp convicted of 1998 slaying of doctor

Sentencing scheduled for May 9

From Phil Hirschkorn
and Jamie Colby
CNN

James Kopp, right, and his attorney Bruce A. Barket, listen in court Tuesday.
James Kopp, right, and his attorney Bruce A. Barket, listen in court Tuesday.

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An anti-abortion extremist was convicted of second-degree murder for the 1998 sniper slaying of an abortion provider. CNN's Jamie Colby reports (March 19)
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• Federal indictment: U.S. v. Kopp  external link
• N.Y. indictment: People v. Kopp  (FindLaw, PDF)external link
• Court TV.com: Case coverage external link

BUFFALO, New York (CNN) -- An anti-abortion extremist who claimed he only meant to wound an abortion provider was convicted Tuesday of second-degree murder for the doctor's 1998 sniper slaying.

James Kopp, 48, was found guilty of intentionally killing Dr. Barnett Slepian, an obstetrician-gynecologist who also performed abortions. Slepian was struck by a single bullet fired from a high-powered rifle through a window of his suburban Amherst home.

Judge Michael D'Amico announced his verdict to a hushed and packed courtroom Tuesday afternoon.

"After reviewing the facts of this case, I have concluded, Mr. Kopp, that you are guilty of intentional murder in the second degree," D'Amico said.

After the verdict was read, Kopp, who was wearing a bulletproof vest smiled at his attorney. "Jim and I were disappointed by the verdict but not shocked by it," said his lawyer, Bruce Barket.

"We are gratified with the verdict," said prosecutor Joe Marusak.

D'Amico issued the verdict Tuesday, one day after he heard the case without a jury during an unusual single court session. Kopp waived his right to a jury trial last week.

Barket said he and Kopp still believe forgoing a jury trial was the right strategy.

Kopp, who had waived his right to a jury trial, had admitted that he shot Slepian, but he claimed he did not intend for him to die.

Prosecutors argued that Kopp's choice of a military assault rifle, and six unused bullets at the crime scene, proved that his claim was untrue.

Kopp, 48, now faces a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for May 9, when Kopp will speak "at length," according to Barket.

Barket said he planned an appeal. The attorney said Kopp's only reaction to the verdict was: "What are you going to do to save babies?"

Unusual one-day proceeding

Kopp smiled as he was led in handcuffs from the courtroom.

His decision to waive the right to a jury trial, opting to have the judge alone determine his guilt or innocence, came as a surprise last week. At the same time, he decided not to contest the facts of the case.

As a result, in an unusual one-day proceeding Monday, Kopp agreed to a 35-page summary of the evidence presented by prosecutors.

The evidence included Kopp's Russian-made rifle, purchased from a Tennessee pawn shop in 1997 using a fake Virginia driver's license, his binoculars, and a baseball cap buried in the woods behind Slepian's house. DNA testing on hair fibers in the cap positively linked it to Kopp.

Prosecutors were spared the arduous task of calling some 60 witnesses, including Dr. Slepian's wife, Lynne, who was to have been the first witness.

She was about 10 feet away from husband, at home with their four sons, when a .30-caliber bullet pierced a kitchen window and hit Slepian in the back.

Mrs. Slepian and one her sons sat immediately behind Kopp, but had no visible reaction to the verdict.

Kopp still faces federal charges

start quoteI think it's very important that the judge gave no credence to Kopp's 'justifiable homicide' defense.end quote
-- Vicki Saporta, National Abortion Federation

Long a target of anti-abortion demonstrators at his office and home, Slepian became the seventh abortion provider gunned down in the United States between 1993 and 1998.

"I think it's very important that the judge gave no credence to Kopp's 'justifiable homicide' defense," said Vicki Saporta, a spokeswoman for the National Abortion Federation. "I think it's important that law enforcement try to figure out who else assisted him."

One witness who would have testified, a 14-year-old who was jogging with her mother near the Slepian house, saw a man in a dark hooded sweatshirt run from the woods into a car and speed away from the Slepian neighborhood.

An anti-abortion couple from Brooklyn has pleaded guilty to sending Kopp money when he was on the run.

After the shooting, Kopp fled to Mexico, then Britain and France. The FBI placed Kopp on its 10 Most Wanted List in 1999.

He lived as a fugitive until French police, acting on a tip from the FBI, apprehended him at a post office in two years ago. France extradited Kopp on the condition that the United States would not seek the death penalty.

Kopp still faces federal charges for using violent force against an abortion provider in violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act signed by President Clinton.

In Canada, there is a warrant for Kopp's arrest in one non-fatal shooting of a doctor who provided abortions.

Kopp remains a suspect in two other shooting in Canada and an attempted shooting of a doctor in Rochester.

He and Barket had originally hoped to use the trial as a forum for their anti-abortion views, and Barket had argued for an acquittal, reiterating Kopp's claim that he intended merely to wound the doctor.

"If you found him 'not guilty,'" Barket said to the judge Monday, "You'd be a hero in the eyes of truth and eternity."

Marusak had called Kopp "a religious terrorist" for killing in the name of Jesus Christ and said his actions were "an insult to Catholics."

"This defendant," Marusak said, "twisted the meaning of the sign of the cross so that he could justify to himself his own deadly use of the sign of the crosshairs."

-- CNN stringer George Zornick contributed to this report.


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