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Abortion Foe Is Convicted of Brutal Slayings

November 03, 1994|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — With no defense to consider, a jury took less than half an hour Wednesday to find former minister Paul Hill guilty of the bloody shotgun slayings of an abortion clinic doctor and his volunteer escort last summer in Pensacola, Fla.

Hill, acting as his own lawyer, did not cross-examine any of 20 prosecution witnesses, nor did he call any witnesses of his own during the three-day trial, which was closely watched by both sides in the emotional national debate on abortion.

Wearing the same slightly bemused expression that he maintained throughout the proceedings, Hill showed no reaction when the verdicts were read. He was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder and one count of firing into an occupied vehicle.

Asked by Escambia County Circuit Judge Frank Bell if he wanted the jurors polled, Hill answered: "No, sir."

Jurors are to return today to make a non-binding recommendation on a possible death penalty. He will be sentenced later.

Hill's conviction on state charges of first-degree murder marks the second time that he has been tried for the killings that rocked Pensacola and once again thrust the quiet Florida Panhandle city into the midst of the national debate over abortion rights.

The city suffered a rash of clinic bombings in the 1980s. Another abortion doctor, David Gunn, was killed outside a Pensacola clinic in March, 1993.

"Sadly, people across the country, and even around the world, think of abortion violence when they think of our community," said Pensacola Mayor John Fogg. He added that the city is working to pass a buffer-zone law that would further protect its two abortion clinics.

Last month, Hill, 40, became the first person to be tried under a federal statute that makes it a crime to harm or interfere with those who provide legal abortions. Convicted of violating three counts of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Law, Hill faces a maximum sentence of life in prison when he is sentenced Dec. 9 on that conviction.

As he did in the federal trial, Hill said he wanted to offer a "necessity defense," arguing that his actions on July 29 were justified to prevent a greater harm--the killing of fetuses. But Bell, like U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson before him, would not permit it.

Hill was charged with lying in wait outside Pensacola's Ladies Center for the arrival of Dr. John B. Britton, a 69-year-old physician who traveled a circuit of several northern Florida clinics providing abortion services. When a small pickup truck being driven by a clinic escort, retired Air Force Col. James H. Barrett, 74, pulled into the parking lot, Hill stepped from behind a tree and fired several blasts from a 12-gauge shotgun.

Britton and Barrett were killed, and Barrett's wife, June, who was in the back seat of the truck, was wounded.

Earlier Wednesday, June Barrett testified through sobs and tears as she described seeing Hill approach the truck with a shotgun in his hands. "I thought: 'Well, he's pretending he's going to shoot us because I knew he would never shoot anybody,' " she said. "About that time I saw this recoil. I heard the noise, the boom. And I thought: 'Oh, my God, he is shooting.' "

When the shooting ended, she testified, "I whispered: 'Doc, are you OK?" There was no answer."

Minutes later, she said, she crawled over the body of her husband to get out of the truck. "I knew he was dead," she said. "I knew he couldn't be living after all those shots were fired."

Well-known for advocating violence, if necessary, to stop legal abortions, Hill and his actions have been deplored by most leaders of the anti-abortion movement.

Abortion-rights advocates hailed the verdict. "The jury's verdict is just and fair and sends a resounding message that Americans will neither excuse nor tolerate anti-choice violence," said Kate Michelman, president of National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. "This should send a strong signal to anti-choice extremists that opposition to abortion is not a license to bomb, harass, stalk, commit arson or murder."

National Organization for Women President Patricia Ireland, who monitored the trial in Pensacola, said she hoped that the verdict would spark a government crackdown on anti-abortion extremists everywhere. "Paul Hill is only one actor in this very bad play," she said.

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