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Jury hears Kopp saying he killed Slepian

A day after they heard James C. Kopp apologize to the widow of the man he is accused of killing, federal court jurors heard Kopp's own words Wednesday that he shot Dr. Barnett A. Slepian.

Philip Sterlace, a stenographer in U.S. District Court, read back selected portions of a statement that Kopp made after his March 19, 2003, conviction in Erie County Court for the murder of Slepian.

" 'On Oct. 23, judge, in 1998 late at night, I shot Dr. Slepian,' " Sterlace read aloud from the transcript of Kopp's statement.

The jury was not told why Kopp was addressing a judge in that statement, just as they were not told that Kopp was earlier convicted of murder.

Sterlace's testimony, combined with today's subpoenaed testimony of Buffalo News reporter Dan Herbeck, who will be asked about Kopp's more detailed November 2002 confession to The News, should remove any mystery in jurors' minds about whether Kopp shot Slepian.

"The only issue left is why he did what he did," Kopp's standby counsel, John F. Humann, said outside the courtroom Wednesday.

Once Sterlace finished his direct testimony, Kopp, representing himself, tried to show why he shot Slepian.

But as Kopp asked Sterlace during cross-examination to read parts of his County Court statement in which Kopp said he was trying to protect the unborn from abortion, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen M. Mehltretter objected.

Judge Richard J. Arcara, who earlier had ruled that part of Kopp's statement inadmissible, told Kopp to move on to another subject.

Finally, after Kopp's third attempt to have Sterlace read the prohibited testimony, and the third sustained objection from the prosecution, Arcara excused the jury from the courtroom.

Rather than scolding Kopp for repeatedly going where he had been told not to, Arcara told Kopp to put on the record what he what was trying to do.

"I object. There is no context to the statement," Kopp said of the prosecution's reading selected portions. "This case is about intent. Everything I've done is to protect the life of a child."

As Kopp continued to thumb through the statement and pick out other things he wanted to say, Arcara reminded him that what he was saying was irrelevant.

"Irrelevant?" a slight, bearded man dressed in a suit and running shoes shouted out from the courtroom audience, two rows behind the Slepian family.

"Judge, what are they irrelevant to?" the man shouted as marshals escorted him out of the courtroom and the federal courthouse.

Anti-abortion supporters of Kopp, who are attending the trial, said they did not know the man.

Kopp, already sentenced to 25 years to life in prison on the state murder conviction, faces a life sentence if convicted of the federal charges: interfering with reproductive services and using a firearm to commit a crime of violence.

The trial, once expected to last three weeks, is moving much more quickly, mainly because Kopp rarely questions a witness and has not objected to the introduction of any of the physical evidence collected against him.

At times, Kopp tries to make the prosecution's job easier.

He simply stood at the defense table as retired Amherst police Detective Lt. Donald Wright testified Wednesday about the search of the woods behind Slepian's home April 8, 1999, a search that led to the discovery of the murder weapon, a Soviet-made SKS assault rifle.

"I will concede they found a gun in the hole, if that would help anything," Kopp told Arcara.

Mehltretter, just as she did when Kopp agreed earlier to stipulate to the testimony of Lynne Slepian about her husband's death, declined the stipulation and continued questioning Wright.

Amherst detectives, FBI agents and Erie County ballistics experts are being called to testify about three key areas in the rear of what was then the Slepians' home in East Amherst.

They testified about finding what they've termed the "hat hole" -- a shallow trench containing a green baseball hat, a pair of binoculars, an empty rifle cartridge box, earplugs, a flashlight, a wristwatch and other items tied to Kopp -- and the gun hole, containing the SKS rifle.

They used laser sighting devices to find the tree where Kopp said he stood and fired the single shot that killed Slepian.

Wright, the retired detective, said that after the "hat hole" was found in the aftermath of the Slepian shooting, a team of 15 to 20 officers returned to the woods in spring, after the winter snows had melted.

Using metal detectors, police discovered another trench containing the assault rifle inside a cardboard box, Wright said.

In Kopp's County Court statement, he described at length how he designed a vinyl holster for the weapon, so he could leave it there in between the evenings he was scouting the Slepian home from the woods.

"It was not just to avoid frightening people," he said about not wanting to walk through the Slepian neighborhood with the rifle. "It was to avoid getting caught."

e-mail: mbeebe@buffnews.com

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