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Anti-abortion activist awaits verdict in shooting of doctor

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Anti-abortion radical James Kopp's claim that he shot a doctor but didn't mean to kill him was nothing but an attempt to clear himself of a murder he planned and practiced for, a prosecutor said as Kopp went on trial.

Erie County Judge Michael D'Amico heard the second-degree murder case without a jury during an unusual single court session Monday. He plans to issue a verdict Tuesday afternoon.

Instead of hearing testimony, the judge was presented with a 35-page list of facts agreed to by both sides — including Kopp's confession that he fired the shot — and then heard attorneys' arguments over what those facts mean legally.

In arguing for acquittal, defense attorney Bruce Barket said Kopp, 48, believed in the use of force to prevent abortions, but had never indicated a desire to kill any doctor.

Although Kopp boasted of being able to fire with near pinpoint accuracy, Barket said the gun might have become misaligned when he buried it behind the Slepian home in advance of the shooting, causing Kopp to miss his mark and unintentionally kill the doctor.

"Even misaligned by a few inches could have cost Dr. Slepian his life," the lawyer said.

Prosecutor Joseph Marusak sought to convince the judge that Kopp either intentionally killed Slepian on Oct. 23, 1998, or acted with such depravity that his recklessness amounted to murder.

The prosecutor said every step that Kopp took in planning for the attack, including his choice of weapon and the use of aliases in buying the rifle, pointed to an intention to kill.

Slepian, a 52-year-old father of four, was killed by a single bullet fired through a rear window of his suburban Amherst home after he and his family returned from a memorial service for Slepian's father.

Marusak likened the high-caliber bullet Kopp fired to a "little miniature supersonic missile."

Kopp entered the courtroom Monday in handcuffs, then nodded and smiled to the Rev. Michael Bray, leader of the Army of God anti-abortion group. He did not look at Lynne Slepian, the doctor's widow.

The judge asked Kopp a series of questions, including whether he understood he had waived his right to testify. Kopp replied, "Yes, your honor" each time. Kopp waived his right to a jury trial last week. In seeking the abbreviated trial based on facts "stipulated" to by both sides, he went along with the prosecution's condition that no lesser charges, such as manslaughter, be considered.

A conviction on either count of second-degree murder could carry a sentence of up to 25 years to life in prison. A sentencing hearing would be held by the judge later.

Barket said that while Kopp was agreeing to the facts in the state trial, it did not mean he would not challenge the same facts at future proceedings in other courts.

Kopp faces a federal charge of interfering with the right to an abortion and is a suspect in four nonfatal shootings of abortion doctors in Canada and Rochester over the past decade. He is charged in one of the Canadian shootings.

Kopp fled the country shortly after the 1998 shooting and was one of the FBI's most-wanted fugitives until his capture in France in 2001.

After initially denying involvement, Kopp made a surprise confession to reporters in November. Marusak said the confession came only after Kopp was submitted to a police lineup and DNA sampling over the summer.