The deal that federal prosecutors offered to the murderer James Kopp may be too good for him to refuse. That's the problem.
Prosecutors are offering Kopp a life sentence in a medium-security prison if he pleads guilty to federal charges stemming from the 1998 shooting of Dr. Barnett A. Slepian, but are threatening him with life in solitary confinement if he insists upon a trial and is convicted. That's a heavy price for exercising a right the Constitution guarantees.
In a very real way, this should be a no-brainer for Kopp, who already has been convicted in state court for murdering Slepian, an abortion doctor whom Kopp says he was only trying to injure. Kopp is 52 and in the early stages of a state 25-years-to-life prison sentence. Probably he never will be free again, and will be an old man before the possibility even arises.
Unless he is hoping that conviction will be overturned on appeal -- a likelihood that falls in the range of remote tononexistent -- he risks nothing in pleading guilty. But it still stinks.
The threat by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen M. Mehltretter is to send Kopp to Florence ADMAX, the federal system's most secure prison, in Florence, Colo. It was meant to hold the country's most dangerous prisoners, and includes such infamous residents as Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, Atlanta Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph and 9/1 1 plotter Zacharias Moussaoui.
Kopp is a self-important murdering zealot, but he doesn't rank with that company. The proof is in the prosecution's offer. If he were one of the worst -- or any kind of discipline risk, for that matter -- prosecutors wouldn't have offered to let him do time instead in a medium-security prison.
Solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for the rest of your life is an extraordinarily harsh punishment. A good case can be made that it qualifies as cruel or unusual when applied to those whose crimes or other behaviors don't merit it.
In some ways, you can't blame prosecutors for using the tools at hand. Court dockets are always full, trials are expensive and they can offer unwelcome surprises. And, it must be said, it would be good to hear Kopp admit his guilt instead of hiding behind anti-abortion rationalizations.
But it's more important to be sure that law enforcement officials use their significant powers wisely, fairly and in keeping with their purpose. Threatening a lifetime of solitary confinement to someone whose crime doesn't merit it reeks of abuse, whether it is applied to Kopp or anyone else.