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What is Kopp trying to prove in his self-defense?

James C. Kopp last week took a short break in his 25-year-to-life sentence for the murder of Dr. Barnett A. Slepian. Kopp is defending himself in U.S. District Court against federal charges brought in the same slaying.

Kopp has already admitted he fired the bullet that killed Slepian. He has failed to object dozens of times as prosecutors remove any doubt he was the gunman. The judge has told him he can't use a defense that features abortion.

So what exactly is Kopp trying to prove? Why is he going through with this trial? Especially after prosecutors threatened him with a life in solitary confinement if he didn't plead guilty?

It's clear from watching him last week in court that Kopp still thinks he can get his message across.

Kopp believes abortion is wrong, that he was justified in shooting Slepian, and that he only meant to wound Slepian -- not kill him -- to prevent him from performing abortions.

Most defendants would defend themselves to avoid the mandatory lifetime sentence he faces if found guilty of violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and using a firearm to do so.

But Kopp, 52, has little chance of being released on the state murder charges. He would be in his mid-70s before he was even eligible for parole. And the likelihood of a parole board releasing him is slim. He also lost his final state appeal.

And Kopp has shown he's not like most defendants.

He and his former attorney, Bruce A. Barket, defended the murder charges in Erie County Court by agreeing to a one-day trial before a judge with all the evidence stipulated.

Not surprisingly, he was found guilty. In return, Kopp got to read a long, rambling statement about the evils of abortion the day he was sentenced.

In federal court, prosecutors need to prove either Kopp intended to kill Slepian or his actions were so reckless that he caused Slepian's death.

With so much evidence against him, including his own words, why is he standing trial?

Kopp has his reasons, but he's not telling anyone, not even his stand-by counsel, John F. Humann. Kopp decided to go it alone in his defense after Humann started contesting evidence.

>Reporter testifies

Kopp's stated intent of shooting to wound, not to kill, seems evident in the earlier woundings of three Canadian doctors, whom Kopp is suspected of shooting, and the attempted wounding of a Rochester doctor.

But Kopp has refused to talk about those shootings. Instead, he has based his defense in federal court so far in trying to let the jury know he only meant to wound Slepian to stop him from performing abortions.

He tried and failed several times during his opening statements to the jury to say he was only trying to protect unborn children.

Judge Richard J. Arcara ruled that because abortion is legal and murder is not, Kopp can't use a justification defense.

But Kopp, despite objections, has gotten the message out several times to the jury, including Thursday's testimony by Buffalo News reporter Dan Herbeck.

The News, attempting to prevent Herbeck's testimony as a government witness, won an agreement with prosecutors to limit his testimony about a November 2002 interview with Kopp to only what was printed in the newspaper.

And Arcara further limited the testimony to only those parts of the interview that pointed toward Kopp's guilt.

Kopp, who had wanted the entire interview read to the jury, got Herbeck to read a section that Arcara had not approved, the prosecution failed to object, and Kopp got another message to the jury.

"I regret that he died," Herbeck quoted Kopp as saying of Slepian. "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."

Another example of Kopp's strategy came during testimony Friday about a reconstruction of the Slepian shooting by FBI agents and Amherst police.

Kopp watched prosecutors display photos shot through the scope of the murder weapon, an SKS assault rifle.

Jurors watched on big-screen TVs a picture of an FBI agent posing as the sniper leaning against a tree, aiming the assault rifle at the Slepian home. Lynne Slepian and her oldest son watched the eerie sight of a sniper aiming at their former house.

>Resorting to photos

Amherst police Capt. Michael Melton described how the laser beam followed the path of the bullet, through the double-paned glass and screen in the Slepians' sunroom.

Jurors then saw pictures of another FBI agent standing in the kitchen where Slepian stood the night he was shot. Melton described how the laser beam from the rifle was lined up on the agent's upper back at the point where Slepian was hit.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin J. Littlefield helped the jury out more, by having Melton shine a courtroom laser at Littlefield's back.

If anyone would know what Kopp saw through that telescopic sight, it was Kopp himself. And he showed jurors that what he saw and what prosecutors said he saw were not the same.

During cross-examination, Kopp showed Melton the same outside photo of the Slepian home that prosecutors had earlier shown, taken by Kopp the night of the shooting.

Kopp then put that photo next to one of the re-enactment, the photo taken from the rifle's telescopic sight.

Did Melton notice anything different about the window shade in both photos?

Melton said the window shade in Kopp's photo was higher.

Kopp then asked government prosecutors for another photo, one that was not in evidence, one the prosecution never showed the jury.

Kopp placed that photo, also taken through the rifle's scope on the night of the re-enactment, side by side with the rifle scope photo prosecutors had earlier shown the jury.

In the prosecution photo, the shade was pulled lower. Only the back of the agent posing as Slepian was visible.

In the re-enactment photo that Kopp displayed, with the shade higher and closer to its height on the night of the shooting, jurors saw not only the agent's back, but his neck and part of his head.

If someone were trying to avoid shooting Slepian in the head, Kopp asked Melton, would it have made a difference to see the man's neck and head too, instead of just his back?

"That would have made a difference," Melton conceded.

But even with the shades at different lengths, Littlefield asked Melton, were there still vital organs that would be hit if someone were shot at that point in the back as Slepian was?

"Yes," the witness replied.

>Reckless act?

Kopp has so far failed to answer or show how shooting someone from 100 feet away with a high-powered military rifle is not reckless.

Melton testified that the SKS rifle, the forerunner of the Russian AK-47, would fire a bullet at the speed of 2,365 feet per second. He said it would take four to five one-hundreths of a second to travel from the sniper tree to Slepian's back.

The jury earlier saw a photo of a kitchen cabinet in the Slepian home with a huge chunk missing, damage done after the bullet had gone through two panes of thermal glass, a screen and Slepian's body.


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