BUFFALO, N.Y. - A judge found anti-abortion activist James Kopp guilty yesterday of second-degree murder in the 1998 shooting of Dr. Barnett Slepian, a doctor who performed abortions.
After a one-day bench trial, Erie County Judge Michael D'Amico rejected the defense that Kopp did not intend to kill Slepian when he shot him with a high-powered assault rifle as the gynecologist stood in the kitchen of his suburban Buffalo home.
Kopp faces a prison term between 25 years and life when he is sentenced May 9. He could not receive a death sentence because French authorities extradited him to the United States after his capture in 2001 only after they were assured he would not face execution.
Kopp, 48, did not deny killing Slepian, but his defense lawyer argued that he acted out of a deep religious belief that shooting Slepian would prevent the doctor from performing more abortions. Kopp has said he meant only to wound Slepian.
But prosecutors painted Kopp as a calculating agent of "religious terrorism" who meticulously prepared for the shooting and purposely chose a gun and ammunition that would strike with lethal force.
Kopp waived his right to a trial by jury last week, meaning that no witnesses would testify and that the judge would make his ruling based on a 35-page statement of facts acknowledged by both sides.
After the verdict was announced, defense lawyer Bruce Barket said Kopp asked him to convey one message: "What are you going to do to save babies?" Barket added that they plan to appeal.
Kopp had originally denied shooting Slepian, 52, only to admit to the killing in an interview last year with the Buffalo News. He described hiding in the bushes and firing one shot through a window of the Slepian home on the evening of Oct. 23, 1998.
Prosecutors said their task was made much easier by not having a jury trial, which could have lasted a month.
Barket said, however, that his client did not regret requesting a bench trial. "It's gotten his view out there in the best possible way it could be displayed," he said.
Kopp faces separate federal charges of violating the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. The trial would probably take place this year. He is also charged in one nonfatal sniper shooting of a Canadian doctor who performed abortions.
Abortion-rights activists across the country hailed the verdict.
Marilynn Buckham, executive director of GYN Womenservices, the Buffalo clinic where Slepian practiced, said it showed Kopp "to be the cold, calculating, premeditated murderer that he is."
"It sends the right message to extremists who would commit a copycat crime," said Vicki Saporta, executive director of the National Abortion Foundation.
Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper