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Activist Gets Life for Killing Abortion Doctor

March 06, 1994| from Times Wire Services

PENSACOLA, Fla. — An anti-abortion activist was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison Saturday for shooting a doctor as he arrived at a clinic to perform abortions.

The jury deliberated less than three hours before convicting Michael F. Griffin, 32, in the slaying of Dr. David Gunn. Griffin showed no emotion when the seven women and five men returned the verdict.

A few minutes after the verdict was announced, Circuit Judge John Parnham sentenced Griffin, a former Pensacola chemical worker, to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years. The prosecution had agreed not to seek the death penalty.

Gunn, 47, was shot three times in the back behind a Pensacola abortion clinic while a protest was underway in front of the building on March 10, 1993.

Gunn's son, David Gunn Jr., and Griffin's wife, Patricia, were in the courtroom as the verdict was announced. Gunn's son gave a slight smile; Patricia Griffin looked distressed and wiped her face with a tissue.

"I felt justice had in fact been served," Gunn's son said. "Griffin does need to be robbed of the rest of his natural life, as he robbed my father of his natural life."

After the sentencing, the doctor's son and several abortion-rights supporters called for further investigation into the activities of anti-abortion crusaders such as former Ku Klux Klansman John Burt, who the defense claimed had brainwashed Griffin.

"We will not rest until there is a full-scale investigation," Gunn Jr. said.

Burt said he did not endorse such violence and said: "You're going to see more bombings and shootings. It's an extreme thing to tear a baby apart. It's an extreme thing to kill a doctor. We don't want either one."

Paul Hill, leader of Defensive Action, an anti-abortion group that does advocate violence against doctors who provide abortions, said the verdict did not change his position that killing those physicians is acceptable.

But Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal said the verdict sends a "very strong signal that abortion-related violence can be dealt with seriously and not in an ideological fashion."

Gunn was the first doctor slain as a result of violence against U.S. abortion clinics. Arson, bombings, chemical attacks and break-ins have been reported at clinics nationwide.

Griffin declined to make a statement before being sentenced.

"Good luck to you, Mr. Griffin," was the judge's final comment after sentencing him. He gave Griffin credit for the year he has spent behind bars.

During closing arguments Saturday, Assistant State Atty. James Murray called Griffin an "assassin" 11 times.

"This is not a case about abortion," Murray told the jury. "Michael Griffin walked up and assassinated Dr. David Gunn."

Murray read from a letter Griffin sent to other anti-abortion activists from jail that said if one baby is saved, it would be worth losing his life.

"This is an assassin talking. This is an assassin bragging about what he did," Murray said.

Defense lawyer Robert Kerrigan complained to the jury that Murray used "careless language" by calling Griffin an assassin.

Kerrigan said Griffin was neither the mastermind of a plot to kill Gunn nor the triggerman.

He conceded it was difficult to question testimony by police officers who said Griffin confessed immediately after the shooting, but he suggested that his client may have admitted to the crime to protect others.

The defense also questioned the ballistics evidence, saying the level of antimony, an element in gunshot residue, was too low to conclusively say that Griffin had handled the murder weapon.

Kerrigan argued the antimony must have come from Griffin's workplace, a nylon factory.

Griffin did not testify during the two-week trial. His lawyers wanted to use an insanity defense, but Parnham refused to allow it because Griffin refused to be examined by a prosecution psychologist and the defense had planned to call no mental health experts of its own.

The judge said expert testimony is required for an insanity defense.

Defense lawyers had contended that anti-abortion videos, literature and rhetoric had driven Griffin temporarily insane.

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