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A French court today removed a big hurdle to James C. Kopp's return to the United States, saying the man accused of killing Dr. Barnett A. Slepian should be extradited in light of the U.S. government's promise not to execute him if convicted.

"We could only give a favorable decision if the American authorities could give sufficient reason to believe that the death penalty will not be sought, pronounced or implemented," said Dominique Bailache, the presiding judge.

Bailache said the United States had done just that, first in an unsigned communique from the U.S. Embassy in Paris and then in a statement Attorney General John Ashcroft signed.

The three-judge panel's decision does not mean that Kopp will return to Buffalo anytime soon to face state and federal charges that he assassinated Slepian, an Amherst physician who provided abortions, in October 1998.

Kopp has until Wednesday to decide whether to appeal today's decision, and then his return would have to be approved by the French government and possibly another French court, said Herve Rouzaud-Le Boeuf, Kopp's attorney.

"We are still at the very beginning of the extradition process," Rouzaud-Le Boeuf said, adding that he couldn't predict when Kopp might be returned to the United States.

The French court also totally rejected Rouzaud-Le Boeuf's claim that Kopp couldn't get a fair trial in Buffalo in light of media coverage of the case. That isn't a matter before the French court, said Bailache, who added: "The media's interest in a case such as this is not unusual."

While by no means final, today's court decision was important -- largely because
of what didn't happen. If the court had ruled against the extradition, Kopp could have gone free, said Robert Baffert, a French prosecutor involved in the case.

Kopp, meanwhile, maintained his innocence. When reporters shouted questions as guards escorted him into the Brittany Palace of Justice, Kopp said: "Who killed Dr. Slepian? That's the only question you should ask."

Kopp -- dressed in a rumpled white dress shirt and gold tie -- otherwise remained silent and expressionless as Bailache read the decision to him and as a translator interpreted it.

For many reasons, Bailache said, the French court needed a reassurance from U.S. authorities that they would not seek the death penalty for Kopp. For one thing, French law forbids sending criminals back to a home country where they face a penalty more severe than they would face in France, which outlawed the death penalty 20 years ago.

For another, extraditing a prisoner to a country that would execute him would violate the European Convention on Human Rights, Bailache said.

But once the United States agreed not to seek the death penalty, everything changed. Bailache said the state and federal murder charges that Kopp faces are similar to what he would face for a similar crime in France, which makes Kopp liable for extradition under a treaty between the United States and France.

The French court refused to approve Kopp's extradition on two lesser state charges because those charges are not covered under that treaty. But Rouzaud-Le Boeuf described those charges as minor and said they easily could be dropped. They, therefore, wouldn't stand in the way of Kopp's return to the United States.

If the French court had ruled against extradition and Kopp were set free, local officials in Dinan, the small city where Kopp was captured on March 29 after 2 1/2 years on the run, could have held him on charges of using a false identification. But Baffert said that would have been unlikely.

France, however, could have refused to send Kopp back to United States and yet make him a man without a country. Baffert said that since Kopp was in the country illegally, France simply could have deported him.

Now, though, the laborious French extradition process can continue.

If Kopp decides to appeal today's decision to the Court of Cassation -- the top French court in such matters -- the case could take months to resolve, Rouzaud-Le Boeuf said.

If Kopp loses that appeal, the extradition decision would be in the hands of French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Another French court, Conseil d'Etat, also could be asked to review the matter.

Rouzaud-Le Boeuf said he had warned his client before today's hearing that the court probably would rule in favor of the extradition after Ashcroft attached his name to the promise not to seek the death penalty.

"I think he is intellectually and psychologically all right," said Rouzaud-Le Boeuf, who has repeatedly attacked the United States for its use of the death penalty. "Prison is not a pleasant place, but then again, a French prison is not like a prison in Texas, or Indiana."

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