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  Two Killed at Clinic in Florida

By William Claiborne
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 30, 1994; Page A01

PENSACOLA, FLA., JULY 29 -- A prominent antiabortion protester opened fire with a shotgun outside a women's clinic today, killing a doctor and his escort and wounding a third person, police said.

Authorities arrested Paul Hill, a local leader of the radical antiabortion group Defensive Action, about 500 feet from the clinic where the shootings occurred. He was charged with two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.

Hill told the arresting officer, "I know one thing, no innocent babies are going to be killed in that clinic today," police said.

Police said Hill sprayed shotgun fire at point-blank range at a pickup truck carrying John Bayard Britton, 69, a Fernandina Beach physician who worked at the clinic, and Britton's escort, James Herman Barrett, 74, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. The two victims, who were sitting in the truck's front seat, were shot in the head, while a third victim, Barrett's wife, June, 68, who was sitting in the rear, was wounded in the left arm. She was hospitalized in fair condition.

Britton, who authorities said had received numerous death threats for his work at The Ladies Center abortion clinic, was wearing a bulletproof vest after having just been picked up at the airport by the Barretts, of Pensacola.

It was the third shooting at a U.S. abortion clinic since March 1993, when David Gunn was fatally shot in the back as he arrived for work as a physician at another Pensacola clinic.

Hill, 40, who described himself as a former Presbyterian minister, had publicly advocated "justifiable homicide" against doctors who perform abortions and had led demonstrations at the clinic every Friday for more than a year, police and abortion rights activists said.

President Clinton condemned the killings as "domestic terrorism" and expressed sympathy for the families of the victims. Attorney General Janet Reno also condemned the acts, although she declined to outline specific steps the Justice Department might take to prevent future violence.

Antiabortion activists across a wide spectrum, both in Pensacola and elsewhere, immediately denounced the killings. "It makes a mockery of everything we stand for," said Cardinal Roger Mahony, chairman of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for Pro-Life Activities.

Some activists blamed the media, contending that Hill was a fringe figure in their movement who had gained prominence through national publicity.

"Unfortunately, over the past year, many in the media -- including USA Today, the New York Times and the 'NBC Nightly News' -- have given Mr. Hill a national spotlight, providing him undeserved attention and likely increasing delusions of self-importance," the National Right to Life Committee said in a statement. "The media has also created the illusion that he represents a constituency within the pro-life movement."

Hill first gained public attention when he formed Defensive Action following Gunn's slaying. He appeared on several radio and television programs to argue that killing abortion doctors was justified, and had supported Michael F. Griffin, 32, who is serving a life sentence for Gunn's murder.

During Griffin's murder trial earlier this year, Hill picketed near the courthouse carrying a sign declaring, "Disobey unjust laws."

Sandy Sheldon, co-administrator of the Pensacola Women's Medical Services clinic, where Gunn was killed, said Hill had shouted violent threats during memorial services for Gunn and had called for "justifiable homicide" against physicians who perform abortions.

A handful of activists who knew Hill today sought to justify his alleged deed. C. Roy McMillan, executive director of the Christian Action Group in Jackson, Miss., said in a telephone interview, "It seems apparent that Paul has terminated a terminator... . I don't find it a sin to kill some one who is fixing to exterminate children."

Some abortion rights advocates charged that the antiabortion movement bears responsibility for tolerating extremists such as Hill. "We believe a significant portion of the blame for this murderous act rests with the leadership of the anti-choice movement, which has been unwilling or unable to control the violent extremists within their midst," said James Wagoner, vice president of the National Abortion Rights Action League.

Britton took the job at The Ladies Center last year after Gunn, who worked at the center, was killed at the other clinic. Britton said he was aware of the risks and wore a bulletproof vest and accepted a security escort for his weekly trips to the clinic.

Clinic staff members usually arrive at about 7:30 a.m., according to police. This morning Hill was there 30 minutes beforehand, erecting crosses in the street in front of the building. Police Sgt. Jerry Potts said an officer in a passing police car ordered Hill to remove the crosses.

Hill returned a half-hour later, approached the blue pickup truck as it pulled up to the clinic and immediately opened fire, authorities said. Witnesses told WCOA-AM radio they heard six to nine shotgun blasts.

Potts said that Hill was arrested while walking "briskly" from the scene after clinic employees who witnessed the shootings pointed him out to the first patrolman to respond to the emergency call.

Police said Hill, who was unarmed but carrying some unspent shotgun shells, made no attempt to resist arrest. They said a 12-gauge shotgun was found on the clinic grounds, which were strewn with glass from the truck's blown-out windows.

Six hours after his arrest, Hill was led in handcuffs out a back door of police headquarters, where he smiled at a group of reporters and said, "Now is the time to defend the unborn the same way you defend slaves about to be killed."

He was put in the back of a police car and driven to the Escambia County Jail, where he will be held until arraignment Saturday.

The killings set off a controversy here over who was responsible for protecting staff and patients at the clinic. Potts said The Ladies Center, which was moved to its current two-story frame structure after its clinic two miles away was bombed on Christmas Day 1984, usually hired an off-duty police officer to stand guard on Friday mornings because of regular demonstrations by Hill and his supporters.

Potts said he did not know why an off-duty officer was not on guard this morning, but he said the department's policy was not to routinely send patrol cars to the clinic on Fridays because previous demonstrations had not been violent.

When asked whether Hill's reported threats of violence warranted an official police presence on Friday mornings, Potts replied, "We would not expect any trouble from Hill. Hill has been there every Friday morning for a long time. There was no indication there would be any trouble from Hill."

When asked whether two murders of Pensacola abortion physicians had created a climate that might lead to a change in the department's policy, Potts said, "I don't think this is a situation that reflects on law enforcement. Two incidents where people elect to shoot at doctors are sad and we hate it and it's bad for the country. But we can't be everywhere all the time."

But Pensacola Women's Medical Services administrator Sheldon said that police should have taken some action against Hill. "In my opinion, he should have been put in an institution," she said. "I think the police should do something. It seems that nobody wants to take these people seriously."

Sheldon said that since the killing of Gunn, security at the clinic has been "very tight," with at least two uniformed off-duty police officers on guard each day the clinic is open.

Potts said that despite the public threats by Hill and other Defensive Action members, the police could not provide continuous surveillance of antiabortion militants or guard abortion clinic staff members on a full-time basis.

"As much as we could, we certainly kept up with him. But there is no way we could put a 24-hour surveillance on him. No city can afford that cost," Potts said.

Staff researcher Anne Day contributed to this report.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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