Share this article

print logo

Kopp's own words work against him during trial

James C. Kopp sat quietly at the defense table in U.S. District Court on Thursday as damning statement after damning statement was made against him in the slaying of Dr. Barnett A. Slepian.

They were the words of James C. Kopp himself, recalled by one of two Buffalo News reporters who interviewed him for an article that appeared in The News on Nov. 20, 2002.

News reporter Dan Herbeck testified that Kopp told him and fellow reporter Lou Michel, " 'I did it, and I'm admitting it.' "

"He told us he planned the shooting for a year, that he hid in the woods behind his home, and fired the shot that killed him," Herbeck told Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin J. Littlefield about the Slepian slaying.

" 'I only fired one shot because Dr. Slepian was knocked down; he disappeared from view,' " Herbeck said Kopp had told the two reporters during the interview in the Erie County Holding Center.

Herbeck, whose regular assignment is covering U.S. District Court, was asked by Kopp during a wandering cross-examination if he was uncomfortable testifying instead of in his usual role of covering others who take the witness stand.

"If it was confidential information from a confidential source, I probably would feel very different," Herbeck replied. "But this was an interview freely given by yourself. Everything has already been in the newspaper.

"I prefer not to be testifying, but I'm under a court order, and I'm complying."

The News, through its attorney, Joseph M. Finnerty, had attempted to quash Herbeck's subpoena, arguing that reporters have First Amendment rights against serving as government witnesses, especially when prosecutors have other ways to produce evidence.

Finnerty said that Kopp was a better witness and noted that Kopp had admitted shooting Slepian in a statement made after he was convicted March 19, 2003, in Erie County Court of killing Slepian.

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara ordered Finnerty and prosecutors to work out an agreement strictly limiting Herbeck's testimony. They agreed that Herbeck would not have to produce any notes or confidential information and would testify only to what had appeared in The News.

"There was absolutely no compromising the First Amendment," Finnerty said outside the courtroom.

If there was anyone clearly unhappy with the arrangement, it was Kopp.

He faces life in prison if convicted of the federal charges of interfering with reproductive services by killing Slepian and using a firearm to commit a violent act. He already has been sentenced to 25 years to life in prison on the state murder conviction.

For Kopp, 52, who is representing himself, Herbeck's testimony marked the third straight damaging day in court:

Tuesday, Kopp apologized to Lynne Slepian in front of the jury. He also declined to question her after she testified about the murder of her husband in the kitchen of their East Amherst home Oct. 23, 1998.

Wednesday, Kopp listened with the jury as a court stenographer, who took Kopp's statement at his Erie County Court sentencing, read back those sections in which Kopp said he shot Slepian.

Thursday brought the most damaging blow so far, as Littlefield, the prosecutor, asked Herbeck about 21 separate incriminating paragraphs in The News article.

Herbeck described how Kopp had told him he planned the shooting, where he bought the gun, how he had practiced with it and customized it. He told how Kopp said he had scouted Slepian's home, and finally how he shot Slepian.

" 'To pick up a gun and aim at another human being, and to fire, it's not a human thing to do,' " Herbeck quoted Kopp as saying. " 'It's not nice. It's not pleasant. It's gory. It's bloody. It overcomes every human instinct. The only thing that would be worse, to me, would be to do nothing, and to allow abortions to continue.' "

Kopp had once wanted the federal jury to hear the entire interview, as well as his entire Erie County Court sentencing statement.

Kopp, in fact, had fired his attorney, John F. Humann, an assistant public federal defender, over Humann's attempt to suppress the statements.

But he changed his mind after Kathleen M. Mehltretter, the first assistant U.S. attorney who is Kopp's chief prosecutor, won a key ruling from Arcara on the use of the incriminating statements.

Arcara granted the prosecutors the right to use only those portions of Kopp's statements that pointed to his guilt. The judge ruled that the jury would not hear about the rest of what he had to say about why he shot Slepian, about how he only meant to wound him to stop him from performing abortions, or that he never meant to kill Slepian.

Those statements, essentially a defendant declaring himself not guilty, can be used only if Kopp testifies, Arcara ruled, and even then would be subject to the rules of evidence. And he reminded Kopp that he had no obligation to testify in his own behalf.

Once that ruling was made, before the trial began, Kopp tried to have The News interview and his sentencing statement suppressed, but Arcara refused.

Kopp spent most of his cross-examination of Herbeck quibbling over what words Kopp used and which words Herbeck and Michel used in writing the article.

Typical was this exchange about whether Kopp had ever actually used the word "kill" during the interview.

"When you say he killed Slepian," Kopp asked, "is that your writing?"

"That's my view of what was said, paraphrasing," Herbeck said. "The man was shot, and the man did die. So I think it was a very accurate paraphrase."

At another point, Herbeck said, "I just read a quote that the bullet killed him."

"Is that the same as I say I killed him?" Kopp asked.

"Well, you said you fired the gun," Herbeck replied.

After numerous tries, Kopp succeeded in getting Herbeck to testify to a part of the article not covered by the agreement.

"Do you remember me saying I killed Dr. Slepian?" Kopp asked.

"I can't honestly say you used that exact word," Herbeck replied.

"I appreciate your honesty," Kopp said.

"Actually there is a quote, if you want me to read it," Herbeck said.

" 'The truth is not that I regret shooting Dr. Slepian,' " Herbeck read from the Kopp interview, failing to draw an objection from Littlefield.

Herbeck continued reading: " 'I regret that he died,' Kopp said. 'I aimed at his shoulder. The bullet took a crazy ricochet, and that's what killed him. One of my goals was to keep Dr. Slepian alive, and I failed at that goal.' "

Kopp, as he told jurors in his opening statement, is trying to show he never intended to kill Slepian, because intent is one of the key elements he said prosecutors have to prove.

But there is also another element that would prove Kopp just as guilty: that his actions were so reckless, they caused Slepian's death.

Mehltretter told the jury that anyone using a high-powered rifle to shoot someone from 91 feet away, when the SKS assault rifle can kill a man from thousands of yards away, is reckless.


There are no comments - be the first to comment