"The role of the court is not just ceremonial," said Judge Richard Arcara. He said the deal appeared to be an attempt to manipulate federal sentencing guidelines.
Dennis Malvasi and Loretta Marra of New York City had agreed to plead guilty to assisting James Kopp in exchange for reduced sentences of 27 months to 33 months in prison.
If convicted at trial, now set to start Sept. 10, they could each be sentenced to up to 10 years and fined $250,000 on more serious obstruction of justice and other charges.
Kopp, 47, is accused of killing Dr. Barnett Slepian, 52, an obstetrician who performed abortions. Slepian was hit by a rifle shot that came through his kitchen window in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst in October 1998.
Kopp quickly became one of the FBI's most wanted fugitives and was captured in France in March 2001. Investigators contend Malvasi and Marra, arrested hours later, had provided Kopp with money in France and Ireland and were plotting to help him sneak back into the United States.
Kopp has pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder and violating a federal law against using deadly force to interfere with the right to abortion.
Malvasi, 52, was convicted in the 1987 of firebombing a New York abortion clinic and trying to bomb a second one. He served five years in prison. His wife, Marra, 37, was twice arrested with Kopp during anti-abortion demonstrations in Vermont and New York in 1990 and 1991.
Their lawyers and a federal prosecutor defended the plea agreement. But the judge said if he were to accept it "the public interest would not be served."
"In no way does this plea contravene the guidelines," Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Mehltretter said after the four-hour hearing.
Under terms of the deal, the couple would not have been required to testify against Kopp.
"Can we reach a plea? We did," said an exasperated Bruce Barket, Marra's attorney. "Can we reach another one? I don't know. It was a fair disposition in a case where she could easily end up with an acquittal."
By Ben Dobbin