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Kopp explains to jury why he shot doctor Answering his own questions in murder trial, he says he wanted to prevent more abortions

James C. Kopp all but convicted himself Monday of federal charges in the slaying of Dr. Barnett A. Slepian, but jurors hearing his testimony got the fullest explanation yet of why he shot Slepian.

Kopp, 52, who is representing himself, awkwardly testified by both asking and then answering questions on the witness stand in his trial on charges that he interfered with reproductive services and used a firearm to commit a violent felony.

If Kopp finally got his point across that he shot Slepian to stop him from performing abortions, and that Slepian's dying was a tragic accident, he also opened himself up to the kind of cross-examination that a prosecutor can usually only dream of.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen M. Mehltretter, using a blunt series of direct questions, got Kopp to admit to every single point of the evidence presented against him in the last two weeks.

Kopp seemed more interested in telling the jury why he did what he did -- used a Russian-made SKS semiautomatic rifle to shoot Slepian -- than talking about the evidence the government collected to show that he did it.

He said there was no particular reason why he chose the Buffalo area as a place to shoot a doctor who performed abortions or, as Kopp described it, killed innocent children.

"Any place that kills children," he said, "it should stop. It doesn't matter where it is. Every child is special."

He said he found Slepian's name in the telephone directory, but he also said for the first time that someone in the Western New York medical community had given him a list of all those doctors who performed abortions here.

He also said he would not have shot Slepian on the night of Oct. 23, 1998, had he known that his wife and four sons were in the house at the time. Had he been aware of that, he said, Slepian would still be alive today.

Kopp also said that had Slepian not appeared in the window of his East Amherst home that evening, Kopp probably would have left town.

He said that he already had been in the area for some time, including two times standing in the woods behind the Slepian house with the rifle aimed at the rear window, and that he had other doctors in mind elsewhere.

Kopp also said a rear window shade was much higher that night than what FBI agents and Amherst police described during a reconstruction of the shooting. He was clearly able to see Slepian's face, not just his back, as the government had shown, Kopp said.

"I could not pull the trigger without being absolutely sure it was Dr. Slepian," he testified.

Kopp again repeated what he told The Buffalo News in a November 2002 interview and said he aimed at Slepian's shoulder. He said he was shocked that Slepian died.

"I never heard of anyone dying from being shot in the arm," he said.

Kopp is a suspect in the shooting of three Canadian doctors who performed abortions, each of them shot in the arm with a rifle.

He admitted to government contentions that he had practiced enough with the SKS rifle to be a very accurate shot and that he had customized it with a telescopic sight and stock to make it even more accurate.

Kopp said he used a fully jacketed cartridge as ammunition to ensure he would not kill Slepian, because he had read that a soft lead bullet would take strange trajectories once it entered the body.

He said he could not explain how Slepian had died.

"How it got from what I saw in the scope to where it ended up, I do not know," he said. "I know where I aimed. I know where I shot."

He asked himself what his reaction had been once he heard Slepian had died.

"I was very grieved," he said. "I am grieved to the present day. I don't know what else to say."

He also said he chose to shoot Slepian at his home, not the Main Street clinic where he performed abortions, because of the possibility of wounding others.

And Kopp also said he felt he had to shoot a doctor because other legal means of protesting abortion had not worked.

Abortion clinics, or killing mills as he called them, could be closed down, he said, but they would just reopen elsewhere.

"The doctor seemed to be the one consistent thing," he said. "He was the one that made it happen. If he doesn't show up to work, the legs of kids don't get pulled off."

Kopp, already convicted of state murder charges in the killing of Slepian, had a number of his supporters in the courtroom who came both to testify for him as character witnesses and support his actions.

It was a virtual who's who of those who have willingly gone to jail for protesting legal abortions in the United States. They came to support Kopp on the 34th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade that upheld the right to an abortion.

There was Joan Andrews Bell, who served 2 1/2 years in a Florida prison for her anti-abortion activities.

Bell said she was a pacifist who could never shoot a doctor who performs abortions.

She never believed that Kopp could either and initially accused the FBI of framing Kopp, she said, but she came to understand why he did what he did.

"I believe when the government fails to protect the innocent in any community, there are people who will protect the innocent," she said.

Bell also said Kopp was known in the pro-life protest movement as a master of the technique of locking himself and others to the doors of abortion clinics.

A local character witness, James Tomasello of Amherst, said that he had been arrested in a protest with Kopp in Vermont and that he considered Kopp justified in shooting Slepian.

He compared Kopp with Sgt. Alvin York, a World War I hero who, despite being a pacifist, killed many enemy troops to protect American lives.

"Do you believe shooting an abortionist is justified?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin J. Littlefield asked Tomasello, a retired construction foreman.

"Absolutely, because he's killing innocent American children," he replied.

Closing arguments in the case will be heard Wednesday before the case goes to the jury.

If convicted, Kopp could face life in prison. He already is serving 25 years to life on the state murder conviction.


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