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Five Years Later, 'Atomic Dog' Caged for Good

Five years after the assassination of Dr. Bernard Slepian, James Kopp is found guilty of second-degree murder and receives the maximum sentence.

Anti-abortion extremists couldn't wait for the March murder trial of their hero, James Kopp. After two and a half years on the lam, the gun-toting warrior — nicknamed "Atomic Dog" by his compatriots in the extreme wing of the anti-abortion movement — had been arrested in France in for the assassination of Dr. Bernard Slepian in his Buffalo, N.Y., area home in 1998.

Now, the 48-year-old Kopp and his attorney, anti-abortion activist Bruce Barket, apparently planned to turn Kopp's trial in Buffalo into a made-for-TV spectacle that would revive the 1990s debate over what extremists characterize as "justifiable homicide" — and, perhaps, inspire other zealots to follow in Kopp's bloody footsteps.

But just days before the trial was scheduled to begin, Kopp shocked his allies by waiving his right to a jury trial. Instead, he agreed to stipulate to a set of facts — including an admission that he killed Slepian with a shot through his kitchen window as the doctor talked with his wife and children — and to a drastically shortened bench trial.

The judge rapidly found the man who'd already admitted the shooting to reporters guilty of second-degree murder (Kopp claimed he meant only to injure, not kill) and gave him the maximum sentence: 25 years to life.

Rather than rail against the conviction, some anti-abortion crusaders were furious with Kopp. "Can anyone tell me how Jim Kopp's decision to have a one-day trial is in the best interest of the babies scheduled to die?" asked Neal Horsley, best known for his online "wanted" list of abortion providers. "Jim Kopp should confess as sin his decision to abandon the court room stage upon which the plight of the unborn could have been spelled out once again in bold and living color almost as clear as the blood on Bernard Slepian's kitchen floor."

Observers suspect Kopp had a specific reason for declining to testify on the facts of the case — wanting to avoid being questioned about help he received during his three years as a fugitive. Two longtime anti-abortion activists, Loretta Marra and her husband Dennis Malvasi, pleaded guilty in April to conspiracy charges for aiding Kopp.

Another activist, Jennifer Rock, admitted in court to giving Kopp $7,000 and a fake driver's license and driving him to Mexico not long after the assassination. Many experts believe that there may have been others, too.

Kopp is also suspected in four nonfatal shootings of doctors in New York and Canada, and he still faces federal charges of interfering with the right to an abortion. At press time, the U.S. Justice Department was deciding whether to go ahead with a federal trial or let Kopp's murder conviction suffice.