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THE KOPP CASE, FICTIONALIZED

If any television show and sensational legal story were made for each other it would be ABC's "The Practice" and the James C. Kopp confession to killing Dr. Barnett Slepian.

It has everything the David E. Kelley drama requires - a sensational crime involving a subject that has been debated nationally for decades, a public confession, and what has been characterized by legal experts as a "bizarre" defense strategy.

How would Kelley put his fictional spin on this case?

He'd have defense attorney Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) or someone in his office try to convince the fictional defendant that he could win his case on the evidence as long as he doesn't try to make it a forum on abortion.

Then the defendant would fire Donnell's firm and try to bring in a hotshot attorney-activist, played by Tony Danza, who would do what the defendant wanted.

Judge Roberta Kittleson (Holland Taylor) would tell Danza that he'd be foolish to allow his client to try make the murder case about abortion. And she would tell him that if she would allow it, the prosecution would only have to call one anti-abortion advocate to the stand, who would have to concede that killing a doctor was wrong and against what the movement stands for. But the judge adds that she'd reluctantly have to allow the attorney change.

Danza becomes the attorney, his client confesses to the Boston Globe, which prompts Judge Kittleson to bring Danza into her chambers to scream at him for sitting in an interview in which his client confesses.

With nothing to lose now by putting his client on the stand, the attorney does that. But the judge restricts the testimony to the day of the shooting and won't allow the defendant's abortion beliefs into evidence.

The defendant is convicted in record time, after which Danza goes into the judge's chambers and demands a new trial on the grounds of providing an inadequate defense.

That would make a great episode.

Of course, the Kopp confession isn't fictional. It is very real. And local TV news departments certainly did a strong job playing catch-up after Buffalo News reporters Dan Herbeck and Lou Michel revealed Wednesday that Kopp confessed to them in a jailhouse interview conducted the week before.

While reporters avoid putting opinions in their stories, they can go to other sources for reactions that put the Kopp confession in perspective.

And every local TV station did just that. Channel 7 went to both Steve Boyd (a personal-injury lawyer who was once a Channel 7 reporter) and Vincent Doyle. Channel 4 went to its legal adviser Terrence Connors. And Channel 2 went to University at Buffalo law professor Lee Albert.

The consensus was that the confession put Kopp's defense in a bind, forcing it into a narrow legal position that would be extremely difficult to win.

Albert termed Kopp's claim that he only intended to wound Slepian "laughable."

There were some shaky moments in the local reporting. At noon, for instance, Channel 4's Lisa Scott said Kopp has confessed to the "murder" of Slepian. Not true. He confessed to shooting and killing Slepian, but didn't think he committed a crime. And murder is a crime.

Channel 4 ran an interview with a anti-abortion minister, Robert Behn, who tried to spin Kopp's confession as an admittance that he was wrong. Not so. Kopp said he didn't commit any crime.

On Thursday morning, Channel 2 anchor Jodi Johnson suggested "you heard it here first." Huh? This was was not Channel 2's story. Kopp confessed to newspaper reporters, not to Channel 2.

But overall, the team coverage was solid, fair and thorough.

When Channel 2's Scott Levin asked reporter Rich Kellman if Kopp's attorney wanted the confession to get sympathy for his client, Kellman said the strategy didn't appear to be working.

Kellman then proceeded to quote anti-abortion and pro-choice spokespeople, who in this case were on the same side and agreed that killing someone was wrong.

And then there was the Channel 2 telepoll, which often is the most laughable thing on local television. This time, 60 percent of callers said Kopp's confession made him a less sympathetic figure, and 6 percent said it made him more sympathetic. The rest didn't vote either way.

But the 10 to 1 margin may actually provide Kopp's attorney with some cause for optimism. After all, he only needs one jury vote out of 12 to prevent a conviction.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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