WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department reluctantly agreed Thursday not to seek the death penalty against an abortion foe accused in the notorious sniper slaying of an upstate New York doctor, clearing the way for the one-time fugitive to be extradited from France on murder charges.
French authorities had refused to return James Charles Kopp, arrested in northwest France in March after more than two years at large, unless the United States guaranteed that he would not face execution. France outlawed capital punishment in 1981.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said that after extensive discussions between French and U.S. officials, he saw little choice but to abandon the prospect of a death sentence.
"If the choice is between extraditing Kopp to face these serious charges in a United States court or risking his release by France, the priority must be Kopp's return," said Ashcroft, a strong supporter of the death penalty.
A French court in Rennes held a hearing on the extradition question Thursday and said it expects a decision at another hearing in three weeks. Justice Department officials said they see no further obstacles to Kopp's extradition and expect the court to move for his return to the United States to face charges that could put him in prison for the rest of his life.
But at Thursday's hearing in France for Kopp, his defense attorneys questioned whether the United States would keep its word.
Kopp, an ardent opponent of abortion, is accused of shooting to death Barnett Slepian, a well-known obstetrician-gynecologist who provided abortions in the Buffalo area, as Slepian stood in his kitchen one evening in 1998. Kopp was allegedly hiding in Slepian's back yard with a sniper rifle as the doctor returned home with his family from Sabbath services at his synagogue.
An international manhunt ensued, and Kopp was put on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted Fugitives" list in 1999. After weeks of surveillance, authorities nabbed the 46-year-old suspect outside a post office in the French town of Dinan, where he had gone to pick up a package with $300 mailed by a New York couple.
He is also considered a possible suspect in several similar attacks on abortion providers in Canada and western New York beginning in 1993.
Slepian left behind a wife and four sons, now ages 10 to 18.
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