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COURTS : Suspect in Abortion Slayings Acts as Own Attorney at Trial


MIAMI — Denied a justifiable-homicide defense, a former Presbyterian minister charged with the July shotgun slayings of an abortion doctor and a volunteer escort outside a Pensacola clinic decided to act as his own attorney Tuesday, telling a jury that those who condone abortion "will answer to God."

Paul Hill, 40, relegated his court-appointed attorneys to the role of advisers and then asked no questions of nine prosecution witnesses who placed him at the murder scene with a gun in his hands.

Instead, in an opening statement, Hill called the government "unjust as it does not protect human life."

"To the extent that we participate in this evil, we will answer to God," he said.

The trial is being closely watched by both sides in the national debate over abortion. Hill is the first person to be prosecuted under the 4-month-old Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Law, which sets up a buffer zone around abortion clinics and makes it illegal to threaten or intimidate abortion providers anywhere.

Anti-abortion groups have denounced the law as an attempt to shut down abortion protests completely. "This law won't stop people like Hill," said John Burt, a Pensacola-area preacher and anti-abortion activist. "All this does is run more moderate people away from clinics. The bombers and shooters are still out there."

But many abortion rights activists see the law as evidence that the Clinton Administration is serious about dealing with a rising tide of abortion-related violence that has included murder, firebombings and assault.

"This case is important because the trial should be quick, and a guilty verdict will send a strong deterrent message," said Patrica Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women. "If we can't get a conviction here, however, then we'll have an awfully hard time going for convictions on lesser acts of violence--arson, bombings, shoving and pushing."

Hill is charged with lying in wait outside The Ladies Center on the morning of July 29 and killing Dr. John Bayard Britton, 69, and James H. Barrett, 74, moments after they drove into the clinic parking lot. Barrett's wife, June, who was in the back seat of the couple's small truck, was wounded.

As the trial opened Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson ruled that Hill could not argue that the killings were justifiable homicide. "There are legal alternatives, certainly legal alternatives far less intrusive and far less evil" than killing to protest abortion, said Vinson.

At that point, Hill took over his defense from two lawyers who had wanted to argue that Hill had killed to prevent a greater evil.

If convicted under the federal law, Hill could receive a maximum penalty of life in prison. He is scheduled to be tried Jan. 30 on state murder charges, which could lead to a death sentence.

Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles and state Atty. Gen. Robert Butterworth urged the U.S. Justice Department to try Hill on the federal charges first, since conviction is believed easier to win and would send a signal that the state will not tolerate continued acts of violence outside abortion clinics.

Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League, said a conviction "will send a clear message that opposition to abortion is not a license to murder or commit violence." She said the slayings of Britton and Barrett were "not isolated incidents; they are part of a nationwide campaign of terror designed to make abortion unavailable."

Pensacola, a beachfront city of 60,000 residents in Florida's Panhandle, has been a flash point for abortion clinic violence, beginning with a spate of firebombings in the 1980s and including the March, 1993, murder of Dr. David Gunn, who worked for the city's other abortion clinic. Another anti-abortion zealot, Michael Griffin, is serving life in prison after conviction in that slaying.

Britton, who lived in Fernandina Beach, knew of the peril he faced. He wore a homemade bulletproof vest and often carried a pistol.

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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