The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday denied a request by anti-abortion militant James Charles Kopp to review his conviction in the 1998 killing of Buffalo obstetrician Barnett Slepian.
Kopp is serving a life sentence in federal prison in Pennsylvania on a 2003 New York state conviction for second degree murder, as well a 2007 federal conviction for violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act.
He claims his rights were violated by improper representation, as well as by a judge’s refusal to let him give testimony about his view of abortion. This was his second unsuccessful bid for Supreme Court review of his case.
Slepian was killed on Friday night, October 23, 1998, shortly after returning home from synagogue where he was saying Kaddish for his late father. Kopp admitted shooting him through the kitchen window from nearby woods with a high-power sniper rifle.
Canadian police consider Kopp a suspect in a series of five similar shootings of abortion providers in their homes in southern Canada and upstate New York between 1994 and 1998. Those shootings became known as the Remembrance Day shootings because they all took place within a few days of November 11, marked by Canadian anti-abortion activists as Remembrance Day for the Unborn. Slepian, the last victim, was the only fatality.
A striking aspect of the case, though seldom discussed, is the fact that four of the five victims were Jewish, and the name of fifth is sometimes described by observers as sounding Jewish (apparently based on off-the-record speculation by Canadian law enforcement officials).
Whether the victims’ identities indicate an anti-Semitic edge to the shooter’s (or shooters’) motives is a matter of dispute, when it’s discussed at all. But there’s intriguing evidence. Five days after Slepian’s killing in Buffalo, police in nearby Hamilton, New York, found a poster of his face in the station washroom with an X and the words “Killer, Jew, Nazi” scrawled across it. It’s not known whether the poster had any connection to the killer.
The significance of the question goes beyond mere ethnic curiosity. If the shooter was specifically targeting Jewish physicians, whether inspired by anti-Semitic conspiracy theories or actual statistics, then the conclusion points to a North American wave of far-right anti-Semitic terrorism during the mid-1990s. That’s information worth knowing, even 15 years later, in order to evaluate current and future threats.
Based on the website of the National Clinic Access Project, the victims are: Garson Romalis, Vancouver, November 8, 1994; Hugh Short, Hamilton, Ont., November 10, 1995; Jack Fainman, Winnipeg, November 11, 1997; David Gandell, Rochester, October 28, 1997, and Slepian.
The shooting of Short, the only non-Jewish victim, is the only one besides Slepian’s in which Kopp has been charged. Canadian authorities have asked for Kopp to be extradited for trial, but U.S. officials reportedly insist he serve out his American sentences first.
He’s serving consecutive sentences of 25 years to life on his New York state murder charge and life plus 10 years on federal charges, which include killing an abortion provider and using a scope-equipped military-style assault weapon in commission of a violent crime.
As a known anti-abortion militant, Kopp became a suspect within days after the shooting. He fled to Mexico, then Ireland and finally in March 2002 to France, where he was arrested with two false Irish passports in his possession. The FBI believed he had assistance from other extremists. He was extradited to New York in June 2002.
After confessing in a November 2002 Buffalo News interview, in which he insisted he only meant to injure Slepian to prevent more abortions, he waived his right to a jury trial and was convicted in March 2003 of second degree murder.
In his federal appeal for review Kopp claimed he was denied a fair trial in state court because the lawyer he chose to represent him, Bruce Barket, had a conflict of interest since he was also representing two persons charged with harboring Kopp as a fugitive. Barket was barred from representing Kopp in his 2007 federal trial because of the conflict and Kopp ended up representing himself.
Kopp’s Supreme Court bid was an appeal of two U.S. District Court decisions in 2011 denying him review. One of the decisions, by U.S. District Judge Michael Tedesca of Rochester, took note of Kopp’s insistence on having Barket as his lawyer and called his appeal “so disingenuous as to suggest bad faith.”
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).