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With courage, seeing a killer for what he is

Courage and cowardice met Tuesday in a federal courtroom.

Lynne Slepian's voice did not crack. Her eyes did not water. Her face did not twitch.

That is courage.

She sat a few feet from James Kopp, the man who has admitted killing her husband, Dr. Barnett Slepian, eight years ago. She sat through the meandering, whiny opening statement of the anti-abortion zealot, who is acting as his own lawyer. She sat for 20 minutes on the witness stand, speaking in a clear, strong voice.

She never faltered, even when recalling the night of Oct. 23, 1998. It was the night Kopp, from outside the Slepian home, fatally shot her husband, whose medical practice included performing abortions.

The bookish, bespectacled Kopp was convicted in state court five years ago of killing Slepian. The man known to the pro-life movement's radical fringe as "Atomic Dog" was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Now he faces federal charges of using force against an abortion provider. If convicted, he is guaranteed life in prison.

That is what brought Lynne Slepian to the witness chair Tuesday. Her dark blond hair was pulled back, her head high and her face full to the courtroom, conveying a mix of determination and acceptance.

Her husband is not coming back, yet she stands strong on his memory. There was strength in her ability to laugh, as she did after misreading a diagram of her home. There was strength in her recollection of a nightmare.

"As he put his keys and wallet and pager down, I heard a popping noise," Lynne Slepian said. "He looked over at me and said, 'I think I'm shot.' He fell against me and to the floor. I called out to our oldest son. One of us called 911. I pressed a dish towel [to the wound] to stop the bleeding."

Each word was measured, clear, strong. That is courage.

She did not recoil when Kopp approached her. Our legal system gives the accused the right to act in his own defense, including cross-examination.

Imagine a man accused of killing your husband or wife being allowed to question you. Our freedom is built on strength and liberty. Even so, it takes a leap of faith in the system to stomach the sight of Lynne Slepian forced to respond to questions from James "Atomic Dog" Kopp, her husband's assassin.

Kopp had the good sense, given the jury's presumed sensitivities, to merely mumble an apology and walk away.

Slepian's oldest son, Andrew, was also in court. He is a big, good-looking kid, with brush-cut blond hair, his dark suit stuffed with a linebacker's shoulders. It was the first time he was face to face with his father's killer. At one point during the prosecutor's opening statement, he seemed about to break down. His mother, sitting beside him, leaned over and said a few words. He held on.

That is courage.

During a courtroom break, a reporter said to me, "That's what this is, a love story between a mother and her sons."

It wasn't supposed to be that way. But that is the way it ended up. The Slepians have four boys. The youngest was 7 when his father was killed; Andrew, the oldest, was 15. They were raised without a father. His absence was a presence for the last eight years. Lynne Slepian's presence partly filled the gap of his absence.

That is courage.

I will not waste much space on James Kopp. He hid in the trees in the dark behind the Slepian house, shouldering a high-powered SKS rifle. He shot Barnett Slepian in the back. He ran and hid for three years, until captured in France. In a lame defense, given the weaponry used, Kopp claimed he did not mean to kill Slepian, merely to "slow him down."

There is a word for all of that. The word is not "courage."


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