Hill's last words preach violence

Published Sept. 4, 2003|Updated Sept. 1, 2005

As thunder briefly dimmed the lights of the execution chamber, Paul Hill took the last moments of his life Wednesday to issue a final call to arms against abortion.

Hill, who killed an abortion doctor and his escort outside a Pensacola abortion clinic in 1994, called on others to follow his example.

"If you believe abortion is a lethal force, you should oppose the force and do what you have to do to stop it," Hill said calmly as he lay strapped to a gurney, staring at the ceiling and speaking into a microphone that hung from it. "May God help you to protect the unborn as you would want to be protected."

Moments later, Hill sucked for air, swallowed and licked his lips. His eyes fluttered, closed, and he went still. Hill, 49, was declared dead at 6:08 p.m.

He became the first person ever executed for killing an abortion doctor.

Security outside Florida State Prison was the tightest since Ted Bundy was executed in 1989. About 50 protesters showed up, far fewer than police expected.

Hill admitted using a shotgun to kill Dr. John Bayard Britton, 69, and his escort, retired Air Force Lt. Col James Barrett, 74, on July 24, 1994, but claimed it was justifiable homicide. He represented himself at his trial, and did not seek appeals. He said Tuesday he had no regrets and expected God to welcome him into heaven.

Members of Hill's family visited with him Wednesday morning, but did not witness the execution. The family of Hill's victims also stayed away.

But both sides of the abortion debate were there.

Two of Hill's supporters _ Rev. Donald Spitz, Hill's spiritual adviser who has defended Hill as a martyr to the anti-abortion cause, and his former lawyer, Michael Hirsh _ watched Hill die. A few feet away sat Linda Taggart, who runs the clinic where Hill committed the murders.

Prison officials refused to identify the witnesses for security reasons.

Afterward, vans carrying the witnesses out of the prison passed a white hearse waiting to take Hill's body to the medical examiner in Gainesville, where an autopsy will be performed.

A last-minute effort by Hirsh to stop the execution was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court shortly before the execution.

Hill ate his last meal of steak, broccoli with hollandaise sauce, salad, sherbet and iced tea, then sat in the solitary confinement cell he has occupied behind the death chamber since July 9, the day Gov. Jeb Bush signed his death warrant.

Spitz sat outside the cell with Hill for four hours. He said Hill had a positive attitude and "joy in his heart."

Abortion clinics tightened security across Florida, worried that Hill's execution would inspire violence. But no major problems were reported.

Shortly before Hill was put to death, black clouds enveloped the prison and unleashed a thunderstorm that drenched protesters and sent some scattering for cover. The storm appeared minutes before Hill's scheduled execution at 6 p.m. and eased up shortly after he was pronounced dead.

Local and state law enforcement agencies almost tripled the number of officers normally on hand for executions. Police cruisers were visible at nearly every intersection of the road leading to the prison.

But only about 50 protesters, many of them Hill supporters, gathered in a field near the prison. They were cordoned off by yellow police tape, separated into three areas for anti-abortion, anti-death penalty and pro-death penalty views.

"I think it's a shame that Gov. Bush gave a terrorist a platform to promote more violence," said Abe Bonowitz, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. "The trend of allowing prisoners to dictate their own punishment is dangerous."

Hill supporters released two dozen yellow balloons at the moment of the execution. They dropped to their knees to pray at 6 p.m.

"Paul Hill is a hero," said Bob Lokey, 63, who drove from Alabama with other Army of God members and Hill supporters. "I wouldn't shrink from lopping off the head of every abortionist out there."

Britton, the abortion doctor Hill murdered, was a family practitioner. He started performing abortions almost immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court made it legal in 1973. He took over at the Ladies Center abortion clinic after Dr. David Gunn was murdered at Pensacola's other clinic in 1993. He was gaunt and bedraggled and tough, known to friends as J.B. or Doc.

A father of four whose wife died of lung cancer in 1983, Britton lived in Fernandina Beach and flew into Pensacola every Friday to perform some 30 abortions. Women would drive an hour or more to get there.

Barrett was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Pensacola, whose members served as clinic escorts. He was a Korean War veteran who was as tough as Britton. He had gotten threats for his escort work, but kept volunteering.

Barrett often carried a gun when he drove Britton from the airport to the clinic and back. And he made it clear that he was willing to use it. His wife, June, often rode with them.

On July 29, 1994, Britton left the gun at home.

A well-known protester outside the clinic, Hill planned the murders for eight days. He said he was inspired by Michael Griffin, who shot Gunn in March 1993. He got national attention for defending Griffin's act as justifiable homicide. He carried a huge sign: "Execute Murderers, Abortionists, Accessories."

Hill bought the shotgun especially for the murders, and took target practice at a local gun range. He arrived early, hoping Barrett would arrive before a police escort as he did the week before.

When they pulled into the clinic, Hill retrieved his shotgun from a cardboard tube he used to hold his signs. He shot Barrett, reloaded, knelt behind a thick oak tree and fired at Britton.

It took five shots to kill the doctor, who was wearing a bulletproof vest and dodged from side to side to avoid being hit. Britton fell to the ground and Hill kept firing until Britton stopped moving. June Barrett, sitting in the jump seat of Barrett's pickup, was wounded in the chest and arm.

The shootings stunned a weary Pensacola, the scene of multiple clinic bombings in 1984, a clinic invasion in 1986, the killing of Dr. Gunn in 1993 and weekly, raucous protests outside the clinics.

"It never occurred to me before Dr. Gunn was murdered that Pensacola would be the center of anti-abortion activity and violence," Taggart, clinic director for 29 years, said recently.

The murders changed everything.

Abortion protesters disappeared, not wanting to be associated with a murderer. Clinics got increased police security. A zone was established around the clinic that protesters couldn't cross. Weekly abortions continue at the clinic, but few protesters show up.

Violence is down at clinics across the country, though they are on heightened alert amid fears of a backlash from anti-abortion extremists.

Hill, who wrote a book that he said is "as done as it's ever going to be," hopes to be a martyr. But many say Hill alienated the anti-abortion movement and will soon be forgotten.

"In my personal opinion, people who rightfully protest don't feel he is one of them," Taggart said recently. "They're exercising their right to protest and they are not violent people. I don't think the vast majority of protesters would consider him one of them."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.