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Hill Found Guilty in Abortion Shootings : Violence: The former minister is the first person convicted of violating the nation's new clinic access law. He also faces murder charges in Florida case.

October 06, 1994|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — In the first prosecution of its kind, a former minister was found guilty Wednesday of killing an abortion clinic doctor and his volunteer escort in violation of a new law that makes it a federal crime to harm or interfere with those who provide legal abortions.

As he had throughout the three-day trial in a Pensacola, Fla., courtroom, defendant Paul Hill, 40, showed little emotion when the verdict of the 12-member jury was read. Later, he smiled benignly.

Convicted of violating three counts of the federal law, Hill could face life in prison when he is sentenced Dec. 9. He was also found guilty of a federal firearms violation.

In January, Hill is to be tried on state murder charges and could get the death penalty in the July 29 shotgun slayings of Dr. John B. Britton, 69, and the escort, James H. Barrett, 74.

Acting as his own lawyer, Hill called no witnesses, nor did he cross-examine any of the dozen or so prosecution witnesses who placed him at the early-morning scene of the killings outside The Ladies Center in Pensacola.

Hill's terse closing statement was nearly a carbon copy of his opening statement: "This government is unjust because it does not protect human life. To the extent we take part in this evil, we must answer to God. May God help us all."

A former Presbyterian minister well-known for advocating violence to stop abortions, Hill was the first person to be charged and tried under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act passed four months ago.

Opponents of abortion charge that the law will do nothing to stop fanatics such as Hill, but will make it harder for anti-abortion demonstrators to make their case outside abortion clinics.

But abortion-rights advocates welcomed the statute as evidence that the Justice Department under the Clinton Administration would take a more aggressive approach to halting anti-abortion violence than did the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

"This verdict sends a signal that anti-abortion violence will be stopped," said Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women. "We know that murder will not be tolerated at clinics. Now we need to know that other forms of violence, including bombings and inciting violence by those behind the scenes will not be tolerated either."

Hill had said he wanted to present a "necessity defense," arguing that his actions were justified to prevent a greater harm--the killing of fetuses. But U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson denied a motion to permit that defense, saying that Hill had offered no evidence that abortion was illegal.

After that ruling Tuesday, Hill dismissed his court-appointed lawyers and, representing himself, offered no defense at all.

Before the case went to the jury Wednesday, June Barrett, 68, the slain escort's widow who was also injured in the assault, said she saw Hill standing in the clinic parking lot as she, Britton and her husband arrived in the couple's pickup truck. She said she saw Hill approach, holding something in his hands. He was a familiar figure who often showed up at the clinic.

"I didn't identify it as a gun," she testified. "I said: 'Paul is pretending he is going to shoot us like little kids do.' "

At that point, she said, Hill opened fire.

When he paused to reload, Britton asked: "Does Jim have his gun today?" she recalled.

She said her husband sometimes carried a .38-caliber pistol locked in a box in the truck.

"I said: 'No, Jim didn't bring the gun today,' " she said. "Then there were more shots."

She said she dived to the floor of the truck as her husband stepped out. She remained there, closing her eyes until the shooting was over. When she opened her eyes, she saw blood dripping between the seats.

"I said: 'Doc, are you OK?' " she recalled.

Briefly losing her composure for the only time in her testimony, she then added that the doctor did not respond.

Barrett and her husband volunteered as clinic escorts once a month, shielding patients from protesters. They would also pick up Britton at the Pensacola airport and take him to the clinic.

Pensacola, a resort city on the Florida Panhandle's Gulf Coast, has been a hotbed of anti-abortion activity since a rash of clinic fire-bombings in the mid-1980s.

In 1993 Dr. David Gunn, a doctor working in the city's other abortion clinic, was slain. His death helped prompt the new federal law.

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