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Activist guilty in abortion clinic killing

Whether he was a martyr for a cause or a zealous abortion opponent who killed a doctor because of his personal beliefs, Michael F. Griffin was found guilty of first-degree murder Saturday and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.

As the judge read the jury's verdict, Griffin's wife cried, and the children of his victim, Dr. David Gunn, squeezed each other's hands.

Griffin appeared unfazed.

It took the jury two hours and 40 minutes to decide that Griffin had shot Gunn three times in the back as he arrived at an abortion clinic March 10, 1993.

As Griffin was led from the courtroom, he waved and smiled slightly at his family.

Outside, the victim's children, national abortion-rights activists and abortion opponents were engulfed by reporters and camera crews from all over the country.

"This verdict sends a message that violence against doctors is not going to be tolerated," said Gunn's son, David Gunn Jr. "It doesn't matter what someone believes or says, we're not going to allow this kind of violence in the United States."

On a more personal level, Gunn and other family members said that the verdict ended a year of "extended agony."

"I'm pleased that justice has been done," Gunn said. "Griffin needs to be robbed of the rest of his natural life, just as he robbed my father of his natural life."

On the opening day of the trial, the state agreed not to seek the death penalty in order to use testimony that Griffin had admitted the killing to his wife. Gunn said he never wanted Griffin to be executed.

"I'm opposed to the death penalty, and I'm not going to sacrifice what I believe in just so I can feel better about my father's murder," he said.

During the trial, Griffin's defense team argued that he did not shoot Gunn, but took the blame because he was brainwashed by extremist leaders of Rescue America. During closing arguments, defense attorney Robert Kerrigan stuck to that defense, but allowed that if Griffin did have anything to do with the murder, he was lured into participation by zealots John Burt and Donnie Gratton.

"John Burt has participated in violence at clinics for decades and had gone unredressed by any government agencies and continues to this day, culminating in this case," he said.

But prosecutors Jim Murray maintained that Griffin planned and carried out the murder on his own, acting on his personal beliefs.

"This is not a case of abortion," he told jurors. "It doesn't matter what side of that issue any of us are on. This case is about first-degree, premeditated murder.

"The evidence shows Michael Griffin chose to operate outside the law to commit murder instead of working inside the law for whatever changes he thought were in accordance with his views."

Many abortion rights leaders have thought the murder was a conspiracy from the beginning and that Griffin was the shooter, prodded on by extremists.

Eleanor Smeal, former president of the National Organization for Women and current president of The Feminist Majority, said the prosecution should have argued the conspiracy theory, and the Pensacola Police Department did not look at "the big picture" when it investigated the case.

"I felt conflicted listening to closing arguments. Half of our argument the defense argued and half the prosecution argued," Smeal said. "The police should have looked at this as a conspiracy."

But for police, it was an open-and-shut case. They had a victim and a man who confessed. They never interviewed the demonstrators who were protesting at the clinic that morning and who left within minutes of the shooting.

After the verdict, Smeal called for further investigation into the case.

"The question raised by the defense about the climate of violence needs to be addressed," she said. "There's no way this case can be viewed as an isolated incident."

Burt and Gratton _ whom the defense fingered as the triggerman _ said afterward they were angry but had forgiven Griffin for his "desperate" defense tactic.

"At one time, I could have admired Mike for the stand he took on saving babies," Burt said. "But when he started pointing fingers at innocent people, it made me mad."

One of several people at the courthouse who view the killing of abortion doctors as justifiable homicide also spoke out after the conviction.

"What Michael Griffin has done stands," said Paul Hill, a former Presbyterian minister who was excommunicated for his beliefs. "And the apparent justice of what he has done remains. He has raised the question of whether it is just to protect the unborn as well as the born."

For Gunn's twin sister, Diane Herrington, life will never be the same.

"Half of me died when he died," she said. "There's a big hole inside me and there's nothing I can do to fill it. The verdict is a relief, but it doesn't change anything."