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FRENCH court recommends extradition of American accused in slaying of abortion doctor

RENNES, France (AP) _ A French court on Thursday recommended the extradition to the United States of James Charles Kopp _ one of the FBI's most wanted fugitives, charged in the 1998 sniper-style killing of a New York doctor who performed abortions.

The three-judge panel in this northern city said it was recommending extradition only on the condition that ``the death penalty will not be requested, pronounced or applied.'' U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has already said the United States will not seek the death penalty.

Kopp, 46, ended 2 1/2 years on the run on March 29, when he was captured by French police in the western town of Dinan. The California native has denied shooting Dr. Barnett Slepian of Amherst, N.Y., as the doctor was making soup in his kitchen.

Kopp, who sat expressionless as the court announced its decision, has until next Wednesday to decide whether to appeal. His attorneys said he hasn't yet made a decision.

His lawyer, Herve Rouzaud-LeBoeuf, said: ``This is the decision I was hoping for.''

``There was no doubt that the court would say yes (to extradition). What is important for us is that on the death penalty issue, the court has only said yes ... under the condition that there will be no death penalty whatsoever.''

The question of whether Kopp could face execution had complicated the extradition process. France, which abolished capital punishment in 1981, does not extradite suspects who face the death penalty at home.

Announcing the decision, Judge Dominique Bailhache, head of the panel, noted the court had received a letter from the U.S. Embassy ``that constitutes a unequivocal commitment to exclude the death penalty.'' However, he said he still hoped the U.S. government would make a firmer declaration.

Entering the court before Thursday's hearing, Kopp maintained his innocence telling reporters: ``Who killed Dr. Slepian? That's the only question you should ask.''

He faces a state murder charge and the additional charge of violating the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act by using deadly force against a doctor who performs abortions. The state charge carries up to life in prison and the federal charge can bring the death penalty.

Ashcroft said earlier this month that the United States wouldn't seek the death penalty ``in order to ensure that Kopp is not released from custody and is brought to justice in America.''

Kopp, known as ``Atomic Dog'' in anti-abortion circles, is also wanted by Canadian authorities for allegedly wounding three doctors there.

Kopp and his lawyers are debating whether to appeal to the Court of Cassation, France's highest court. A final step would be the approval of French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, necessary for all extraditions. Kopp's lawyers at that point could ask for a review by the State Council, a top administrative body whose members are not judges.

Prosecutor Robert Baffert said the earliest an extradition could be expected would be a month from now.

Slepian, 52, an obstetrician-gynecologist who also performed abortions, had just returned from synagogue on Oct. 23, 1998, when he was killed by a single rifle shot that came through a window.

Kopp disappeared 11 days later, just a day before U.S. authorities issued a warrant in hopes of questioning him. U.S. investigators believe Kopp fled first to New York City, then New Jersey, then Ireland, and finally France.
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