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Beware the zealot. Mistrust the convert bent on martyrdom. Of such specimens murderers are made.

But then, James Kopp doesn't believe he is a murderer. When he lurked in the woods outside Dr. Barnett Slepian's home and took dead aim, he says, he meant only to injure the Amherst abortion provider, not to kill him. And, besides, he did it for a reason he deemed to be satisfactory. He shot the doctor to prevent him from performing any more abortions, Kopp told two Buffalo News reporters in a jailhouse confession.

Jailhouse confessions usually are self-serving and always suspicious. The motive this time, though, appears to be strategic.

By admitting what prosecutors were preparing to try to prove, anyway, Kopp and his lawyer, Bruce Barket, have taken the only path they could to make a trial issue of Kopp's all-consuming opposition to abortion. By acknowledging it as his motive, the defense may be able to raise the issue of abortion and try to win acquittal or conviction on a lesser charge than second-degree murder.

The argument would be that an act committed to stop a crime - to stop more killings, in Kopp's view - is not itself a crime. But there's a problem with that. Abortion is not a legally defined crime, however much Kopp and his attorney may want to raise moral definitions as a defense. And society rightly takes a dim view of those who would take the law into their own hands.

Kopp told the reporters a tale that seems believable in its outlines and many of its specifics - maybe even all of them. His description of hiding in the woods outside Slepian's home rings true. So does his acknowledgment of sudden conversion from a "pagan" life to one of celibate, pro-life militancy.

But his claim that he intended only to wound Slepian by shooting him in the shoulder is unknowable. Perhaps he is the marksman he says. Maybe he really was distressed when he found out, a day after the shooting, that he had taken Slepian's life. Or maybe he is shrouding a lie in layers of enveloping truths, hoping to earn the benefit of the doubt. Unless he pleads guilty, a jury will have to answer that question.

As a matter of New York law, though, the distinction may be irrelevant. By his own admission, Kopp committed an act that was liable to cause death - and, in fact, did, even though he says he hit the spot he aimed at. A jury might convict on a lesser offense, but it doesn't have to. Beyond that, if someone commits homicide by acting with "depraved indifference" to life, then he is guilty. Kopp's indifference to Slepian's life could hardly have been more depraved.

Hiding in the dark outside the physician's home, he raised his rifle - one he purposely bought far from New York - took aim and waited until he had the shot he wanted. It makes no difference if he set his gun sight on the doctor's head or his shoulder.

By his own description, Kopp was conducting himself in a way that was liable to result in the death of his intended victim. It is the kind of depravity that he imputes to abortionists, and he cannot now claim, with any credibility, that it was an accident.

The state indictment now charges that Kopp intentionally murdered Slepian, but with Kopp's admission, District Attorney Frank Clark could seek to add the theory of depraved indifference to the indictment.

The federal charge seems even clearer. Kopp's description of his action tracks the statute, which defines murder as homicide committed through the intentional use of deadly force.

Kopp, now an admitted killer, is also an admitted terrorist. "To be sitting in a room, talking to your wife one minute, and in the next moment, to be shot, is terrifying," he told reporters Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck. Indeed, it is. Kopp knows it and, while he says it troubles him, he doesn't apologize for it.

Even more disturbingly, Kopp also suggested he is a continuing threat to people with whom he disagrees on the abortion issue. In the interview, Kopp did not deny involvement in the shootings of other abortion providers, nor, given the chance to rule it out, would he forswear intent to "do something" additional if he is set free. This is a man on a mission.

Abortion is a troubling issue for many people, even some who are pro-choice. Both sides are capable of mounting persuasive arguments. With his intentional shooting of Slepian, though, Kopp has damaged the pro-life cause by painting its members not as activists committed to a legitimate purpose, but as extremists and frauds. In the words of one pro-life caller to this newspaper Wednesday, "this guy has set the movement back 10 years."

Indeed, Kopp says he understands that many of his pro-life supporters will now see him as a hypocrite. They should, because that is what he is. But so are many humans, in one way or another. Most of them, though, are not killers, as well. Kopp is. Now, we have his word on it.

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