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Prosecutors complete case against Kopp Complicated evidence, testimony finished in less than two weeks

Federal prosecutors finished presenting a complicated murder case against James C. Kopp on Thursday, a case that resembled a television "CSI" episode with laser re-enactments, fiber analysis, ballistic and medical evidence.

Prosecutors fairly sped through dozens of witnesses in less than two weeks of testimony, largely because Kopp rarely objected to any of the evidence against him and had only a few questions for witnesses.

And even then, Kopp's questions usually dealt not with the physical evidence collected in the Oct. 23, 1998, murder of Dr. Barnett A. Slepian, but instead were thinly veiled attempts by Kopp to express his views on abortion.

Kopp, 52, already convicted of second-degree murder in Slepian's killing and serving a sentence of 25 years to life, heard the last of the evidence against him on charges that could bring a life sentence: interfering with reproductive services and using a firearm to commit a violent act.

To convict him, prosecutors basically have to prove in federal court what an Erie County Court judge already ruled: that Kopp is guilty of murder.

Kopp, who is representing himself, has conceded that point through his sentencing statement in Erie County Court and through the lengthy interview he gave The Buffalo News about how he planned the shooting and carried it off. Jurors heard incriminating portions of both.

Kopp said he only meant to wound Slepian to prevent him from performing abortions, but if prosecutors cannot convince the jury that he intended to kill Slepian, they can also show that he shot him with such reckless indifference that he caused his death.

About the only mystery remaining is whether Kopp will testify in his own defense Monday, when the trial resumes.

Kopp declined to say whether he would in arguments outside the jury's hearing at the close of court Wednesday, but he did ask Judge Richard J. Arcara if he could have his standby counsel, John F. Humann, question him if he did testify. Arcara appointed Humann to assist Kopp after Kopp insisted on representing himself.

Kopp had tried to call a number of anti-abortion activists to testify, including Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a physician who performed abortions but has since been an activist against abortion.

But Arcara, after Kopp offered previews of what they would testify about, quashed their subpoenas and limited Kopp to five character witnesses. The trial, Arcara has ruled, is not about abortion.

Kopp listened Thursday as Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kathleen M. Mehltretter and Martin J. Littlefield questioned nine witnesses in three hours, including lengthy testimony from FBI experts who said Kopp's fingerprints and handwriting linked him to the case.

Kopp had no questions for any of them, except for Edward Brannon, an FBI fingerprint specialist, and even then, his questions had nothing to do with evidence against him.

Brannon, who had given a long, detailed explantion on fingerprints to the jury, at one point had mentioned that fingerprints developed in the womb.

"Did you say that fingerprints formed before birth?" Kopp asked him.

Brannon said he had read studies that they did but said he wasn't an expert in that area.

Undeterred, Kopp asked when the fingerprints formed, if fingerprints taken from a fetus -- Kopp always uses the term unborn child -- would be identical if they were taken from the same person in adulthood.

Arcara finally called a halt to Kopp's attempts and sustained prosecution objections as Kopp tried to continue.

Despite all the scientific evidence, the case against Kopp got its start because of witnesses who saw him in the Slepian neighborhood before the shooting.

Two of those witnesses -- Daniel Lenard and Dolah Barrett -- reinforced Thursday the earlier testimony of Joan Dorn, an associate professor of social and preventive medicine at the University at Buffalo.

Lenard and Barrett both said they had seen Kopp jogging with an awkward style through Slepian's neighborhood and thought it odd enough that they both later talked to investigators. They identified Kopp in photo arrays and later in police lineups.

But it was Dorn, a daily runner through Slepian's East Amherst neighborhood, who first led investigators to Kopp and enabled them to tie him to all the scientific evidence they later gathered.

Dorn testified that Kopp's ungainly running style and the fact he got out of a car with Vermont plates led her to make a note in that day's running journal: "Wacky Car!"

She also wrote down the license plate, BPE216. After Slepian was killed, she called authorities, who found the car was registered to Kopp, a man who had been arrested dozens of times at anti-abortion protests.

Kopp was arrested in France 2 1/2 years after the slaying.

e-mail: mbeebe@buffnews.com

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