Killer at abortion clinic believes his act was right

Paul J. Hill fatally shot a doctor and escort. He is without remorse.

Philadelphia Inquirer, May 6, 1999
By Steve Goldstein

STARKE, Fla. - Of 54 inmates on death row at Florida State Prison, only one, a guard explained, remains unrepentant.

Paul J. Hill, Inmate No. 459364, who five years ago murdered a doctor who performed abortions and the doctor's clinic escort, is free from remorse and filled with belief in his cause.

"I wouldn't advise them to give me my shotgun back and let me go," Hill said, smiling, "unless they wanted a similar outcome."

They will not let him go. Hill has waived his right to appeals, and awaits a certain fate in this landscape of razor wire and dun-colored military-style prison barracks already baking in the spring sun 50 miles southwest of Jacksonville.

Last week, over the course of an hour in a prison interview room the size of an office cubicle, Hill, 45, a former Presbyterian minister, demonstrated why the battle over abortion rights may not ever be settled at the polls or in the courts.

Hill said that he would not rule out the use of chemical or biological weapons by antiabortion activists, that it may be "just" to assassinate Supreme Court justices who support Roe v. Wade, that any faith other than "true" Christian worship is in the service of Satan, and that abortion foes who share his views are ready to engage in more violence.

"We have instigated more violence because police are more prepared to harm innocent pro-lifers who are defending innocent unborn children," he said.

On the extreme fringe of the antiabortion movement, Hill has become what John Brown was to 19th-century abolitionists: a believer willing to sacrifice himself - and others - to the cause.

And Hill has supporters.

An expert on extremist groups, Paul deArmond, says it's hard to estimate how many people actually favor using deadly violence against clinics that offer abortions. "The number actually acting is small," deArmond said last week, "but the support network is enormous."

Hill said he had watched the news reports on the deadly school shootings in Littleton, Colo., on the television in his 6-by-9-foot cell - and did not think his own crimes had contributed to any rise in teenagers' acceptance of violence.

"Personally, I'd identify more with the policemen exchanging fire with [the two teenage killers] trying to harm the students," he said.

It has been nearly five years since Hill's crimes. On July 29, 1994, he lay in wait in the parking lot outside the Pensacola Ladies Center with a loaded 12-gauge shotgun and 14 shells. When a pickup truck approached shortly before 7:30 a.m., Hill fired.

He fatally shot Dr. John Bayard Britton, 69, and Britton's escort, James H. Barrett, 74, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, in the head, and wounded Barrett's wife, June, 68, a retired nurse.

Within minutes, police stopped Hill as he walked past a barbecue joint 500 feet away. "One thing is for sure," he yelled as they took him into custody, "no innocent babies will die in that clinic today."

Today, he looks much the same as the tall, trim, sandy-haired man who pulled the trigger. At the interview, Hill wore a traffic-cone-orange prison shirt, blue athletic pants and sneakers. His wire rims have been replaced by tortoise-shell bifocals. Along with handcuffs, a sport watch and wedding ring adorned his hands.

Why didn't he simply try to incapacitate the doctor that day?

"If I wounded him, just shot him in the leg or shoulder, I knew there was an excellent probability that he would return to killing innocent children.

"In my thinking," Hill said, "it just became: I had to kill him."

Britton, a self-described atheist, had turned to performing abortions when he ran into money problems after being disciplined by state medical authorities for unrelated offenses. He had replaced Dr. David Gunn, who was shot and killed at Pensacola's other abortion clinic 15 months earlier.

Gunn's murderer, Michael Griffin, is serving a life sentence. Since Gunn's murder in 1993, six doctors and clinic workers have been slain. Last October, a sniper killed Dr. Barnett Slepian, an abortion provider in Buffalo.

Hill, who years ago was excommunicated by his church for his extreme views, ran his own auto retouching and repair business for a time. Mainstream antiabortion leaders have rejected him. Others have compared him to John Brown, the abolitionist zealot.

The Rev. Philip "Flip" Benham, director of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue National, disavows Hill, saying he committed "an act of cowardice, terror and murder."

In an interview last week, Mr. Benham said such violence has no support among those on the front lines of the antiabortion movement.

But Hill has his passionate followers, chief among them the Rev. Michael Bray, pastor of a small Lutheran church in Bowie, Md., who has a "Free Paul Hill" bumper sticker on his Chevy Suburban, along with one that reads "Execute Murderers/Abortionists."

DeArmond, a Bellingham, Wash.-based expert on religious and right-wing extremism, said Hill is aligned with the Christian Identity movement that preaches violence in the service of "the one true God."

"People are finally waking up to antiabortion as a terrorist movement," deArmond said. "It's only taken about 150 bombings and a number of assassinations."

At the White Rose banquet in Bowie in January, a dinner event held to raise money for the families of Hill and others, a letter from Hill was read aloud.

"The threat of heightened persecution served to heighten my joy," he wrote.

Roy McMillan, a Hill defender who is in the Mississippi-based Christian Action Group, has said that assassinating Supreme Court justices would be "justifiable homicide."

Hill said: "Considering the majority of them [justices] favor mass murder, it's hard for me to escape the conclusion that it would be just for someone to kill them. . . . But I'm not altogether certain it would be wise."

He gestured frequently with his manacled wrists. He had just come from playing basketball and volleyball. Exercise is permitted twice a week. He spends mornings in prayer and Bible readings, and said he is writing a book.

Hill said he hopes "a few people making symbolic acts such as the one I made would cause people to come to grips with the [abortion] issue. . . . And the thing could be resolved without an undue amount of chaos. Whether it will come to war, I don't know. I could see that it is possible."

Hill's execution date has not been set. Having been denied a new trial, he has waived further appeals - though he said his wife, Karen, has tried to get him to reconsider.

He sees his wife, his 13-year-old son and his two younger daughters about four times a year. The pain of separation, he said, heightens his joy at what he calls martyrdom.

"I'm not resisting their efforts to kill me," he said. "Yeah, I would consider myself a martyr, under the circumstances, but I wouldn't want to wear my martyrdom on my sleeve, and parade proudly to the electric chair."

Hill is certain he did right.

"I'm experiencing more joy and inner peace and satisfaction," he said, smiling, "than I ever have in my life."

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