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Man convicted in abortion clinic killing

Michael F. Griffin was convicted of first-degree murder on Saturday in the killing of a doctor outside an abortion clinic here.

The jury took only two hours and 40 minutes to reach its verdict. Griffin, a 32-year-old former chemical plant worker, faces life imprisonment. He would be eligible for parole only after serving 25 years. The prosecution had agreed not to seek the death penalty.

The victim, Dr. David Gunn, was shot three times in the back last March 10 during a demonstration outside the Pensacola Women's Medical Services clinic.

The chief prosecutor, Jim Murray, told the jury in his closing argument that it was clear not only that Griffin had killed Gunn but also that he had done so with premeditation, acting from deeply held but misguided religious beliefs.

The issue of premeditation was crucial to the prosecution case, since a conviction for first-degree murder is impossible in Florida unless premeditation has been proved. Judge John Parnham told the jurors Saturday that they could find Griffin guilty of either second-degree murder or manslaughter if they concluded that premeditation was absent.

The trial went to the jury of seven women and five men after only five days of testimony, much of it having to do with gunpowder analysis and other forensic tests.

The chief defense counsel, Robert Kerrigan, had initially drawn up a list of nearly 50 potential witnesses for the defense, but called only a handful in presenting his case Friday.

The jury got the case after Kerrigan rebuked prosecutors for repeatedly calling his client an assassin in their closing arguments.

He complained that the use of that term to describe Griffin was inflammatory and could shift the jury's attention "from analysis of the evidence to becoming angry" and lead to an unjust verdict. He urged jurors to focus only on the evidence, which he said was inconclusive and full of contradictions.

Murray, in his arguments countered: "Michael Griffin killed a man because of a difference in ideas. There is no other difference than that. He cold-bloodedly murdered Dr. Gunn."

Abortion-rights organizations, for whom Gunn has become a martyr, and abortion opponents have been in and around the Escambia County Courthouse throughout Griffin's trial. But Murray told the jurors that they would have to put the intense national debate on the subject out of their minds when they began their deliberations.

Murray also mocked Griffin's behavior in court Friday, when the defendant burst into tears as a fellow abortion protester testified about graphic videotapes showing aborted fetuses and a funeral held for a pair of fetuses. "He didn't cry, he didn't sob, he didn't put his head in his hands" earlier when discussing the shooting of Gunn, the prosecutor said.

In a blow to the defense, Parnham ruled Saturday that those videos, which the defense says were partially responsible for Griffin's confused mental state at the time Gunn was killed, cannot be viewed by the jury during their deliberations.

In his closing statement, Kerrigan picked away at what he said were flaws in the physical evidence presented by prosecutors. He reminded the jury that police could find none of Griffin's fingerprints on the murder weapon and stressed that gunshot residue tests also failed to link Griffin to the crime.

"There is no scientific evidence that connects this defendant in any way" to the revolver that fired the shots or to the shooting itself, the defense lawyer said.

Nevertheless, Kerrigan also argued that Griffin "could well have agreed to take responsibility for the death" of Gunn to protect John Burt and Donald Gratton, local leaders of the anti-abortion group Rescue America.

He noted that Burt and Gratton had been granted immunity by the prosecution, and he charged that they "assisted the state to some extent."

But Murray responded that Kerrigan's focus on Burt and Gratton was "nothing more than a straw man being shaken" to "distract you from the mountains of evidence" against Griffin.

Time and time again, he urged the jurors to consider eyewitness testimony placing him at the scene of the crime, his initial confession, and a discussion with his wife overheard by a jail guard.

"This was an assassin talking," Murray told the jurors. "This was an assassin bragging about what he did."