Paul Jennings Hill can remember the exact moment when he realised that murder might be his holy duty. It was the afternoon of Thursday, July 21, 1994, and he was at work, patching the bodywork of a used vehicle while thinking, as always, about abortion. More precisely, how to prevent it. Already a veteran picketer of abortion clinics, Hill was wondering which of his fellow anti‑abortionists might act next, and how, when the idea struck him forcefully.
"During the next two or three hours," he says, "as I continued to work in a distracted manner, I began to consider what would happen if I were to shoot an abortionist." Hill put the matter to the test eight days later, when he shot and killed a doctor and his bodyguard as they entered an abortion clinic in his hometown of Pensacola, Florida.
Having waited the best part of a decade, Hill will get the answer to his speculative question at 6pm Eastern Standard Time on Wednesday, September 3. This is when the 49‑year‑old former Presbyterian preacher will be led from his Death Row cell in Florida State Prison to the nearby execution chamber, arid given a lethal injection.
While Hill's death may answer his question, it raises many others, and could yet become a flashpoint in a ferocious ethical struggle which, more than 30 years after abortion was first legalised by the Roe v Wade case, remains America's most divisive social issue.
Will Paul Hill's execution serve as a deterrent to anti-abortion terrorism? Or will it be the catalyst for more bombings, shootings and arson? Could Hill become, as he so dearly wishes, the first martyr of a resurgent pro‑life cause? Are inflammatory anti‑abortion websites such as Christiangallery.com and ArmyofGod.com right to assert that Hill's "sacrifice" will revitalise their movement and inspire the waverers? Or will Hill's demise prove, as others claim, the death‑knell for a desperate and moribund lunatic fringe?
Is it possible that, after years of Government cheek-turning and soft‑pedalling, the current administration—with its conservative, pro‑life Christian chief executive—has finally had enough of Hill and his ilk, and will now pursue and punish them to the full extent of the law, pressing for the death penalty wherever possible? All these issues and more are raised in the execution of prisoner no. 459364.
Hill and his supporters have no doubt. The Reverend Donald Spitz, a fervent Christian fundamentalist, founder of Pro‑Life Virginia, and Hill's appointed "spiritual adviser", visited him on Death Row immediately after Governor Jeb Bush signed his death warrant a few weeks ago.
"He [Hill] believes that God has chosen him to sacrifice his life for the unborn children," says Spitz. "As Abraham, in faith, went forth, and God raised up nations from Abraham, brother Paul Hill has faith that when the State of Florida puts him to death, he will save many, many children." Spitz refuses to specify how that might come about, but his drift is clear.
Hill is more precise. Paraphrasing Victor Hugo's observation about historical inevitability, he contends that, "defending the unborn with force is considerably more than an idea whose time has come; it is a biblical duty whose time has come".
Certainly, the citizens of Pensacola will pay close attention over the coming months. Were it not for the abortion issue, this colonial town of 60,000 on the Gulf of Mexico would still be largely unknown outside Florida except as a tourist and convention resort. Apart from its sweeping white beaches and warm seas, Pensacola is perhaps best known for the large number of churches within its city limits—more than 250, if you count just those with phone numbers—including Methodist, Unitarian, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Mormon and Lutheran, and a handful of smaller but far more vociferous congregations, such as the Protestant fundamentalist Assemblies of God.
In other words, Pensacola has a church for every 240 inhabitants. Still, given the numerous strip‑clubs catering largely for the local naval base, it hardly qualifies as a hotbed of religious puritanism. In many ways it is the most liberal and cosmopolitan community in the Florida panhandle, and is the site of the University of West Florida.
Yet Pensacola became a byword for anti‑abortionist violence overnight, on the evening of December 24, 1984, with the bombing of The Ladies Center abortion clinic and the offices of two doctors who performed abortions, an action later described by the bombers as "a birthday gift for Jesus". The Subsequent trial attracted the world's media, and fanatical anti‑abortionist campaigners from all over the US, including the prominent television evangelist Jerry Falwell, founder of "The Moral Majority", who came to donate publicly $10,000 to the bombers' defence fund.
In 1985, two Pensacola residents, Matt Goldsby and James Simmons, both 21, were convicted of the bombings. Goldsby's girlfriend, Kaye Wiggins, and Simmons' wife, Kathren, played minor roles in the attacks which, remarkably, produced no injuries. Goldsby and Simmons would eventually serve about half of their 10‑year prison sentences, while the women were sentenced to probation.
For the next decade, Pensacola became the principal battleground for the abortion issue, and the scene of America's worst abortion‑related violence, as its clinics were repeatedly bombed, torched, invaded, picketed, burgled and ransacked. Doctors and clinic staff were followed home, harassed, threatened, attacked, and had their addresses, phone numbers and photographs published on anti‑abortion websites alongside pictures of aborted foetuses. Their families were abused, and they received death threats, obscene mail and menacing phone calls.
On March 10, 1993, the Pensacola protest campaign took a new turn. Even before the notion of murder as scriptural obligation had started to emerge in Hill's mind, an anti‑abortion activist called Michael Griffin sat waiting in the car park of Pensacola Women's Medical Services with a loaded handgun. When Dr David Gunn emerged and walked to his car, Griffin ran up and shot him three times in the back, killing him. Despite warnings from police and friends, Gunn had refused to wear a bullet‑proof vest.
By this time, the anti‑abortion picket lines in Pensacola had a new activist, a tall, blond ex‑preacher called Paul Hill, who had started to appear outside The Ladies Center—where he would call out, in an eerie approximation of a childish whine, "Mommy, Mommy, please don't kill me." Immediately following Dr Gunn's murder, Hill flew to New York City to appear on the nationally networked Donahue Show, hosted by Phil Donahue, where he sat alongside Dr Gunn's son and declared that the doctor had deserved to die, and the Bible sanctioned the use of deadly force in the defence of life.
Dr. John Britton The 'circuit abortionist'
with a defiant shoot-first attitude kept a loaded 357 Magnum handgun in his ear. It did not save him from Paul Hill
Soon afterwards, Hill attended Gunn's funeral carrying a placard with the slogan "Defend The Unborn", and remonstrated with Gunn's family. On the Pensacola courthouse steps during Griffin's trial, Hill restated his message for the national media, brandishing a placard proclaiming "Justifiable Homicide". Privately though, Hill believed Griffin had undermined the symbolism of his own action with his legal argument; the judge allowed Griffin to argue that harrowing anti‑abortion propaganda—including graphic videos of aborted foetuses and a handbill calling for Dr Gunn to be "stopped"—had driven him to his actions. This defence was relatively successful: Griffin got life imprisonment rather than the death sentence.
"When I first appeared on Donahue," says Hill, "I took the position that Griffin's killing of Dr Gunn was justified, but I asked the audience to suspend judgment as to whether it had been wise." Later, however, Hill came to the realisation that "using the force necessary to defend the unborn gives credibility, urgency and direction to the pro‑life movement, which it has lacked, and which it needs in order to prevail”.
Although Paul Hill refused my repeated requests for an individual interview, his prison writings from Death Row clearly reveal the thought processes which led him from idle speculation on a Pensacola used car lot that fateful Thursday afternoon to a brutal double murder a week later.
"Although, at the time, my thinking on these things had not crystallised, no matter how I approached the subject, everything seemed to fall together in an amazing manner," he said. "I continued to secretly consider shooting an abortionist, half hoping it would not appear as plausible after I had given it more thought."
The following morning, Friday, was abortion day at the Ladies Center in Pensacola. As usual, Hill went to picket the clinic, arriving around 8am, where a fellow protester told him that the doctor and his volunteer bodyguard had arrived at 7.30am, just a few minutes before their police security guard. "This information was like a bright green light," says Hill, "signalling me on.
He already knew, from an article that had appeared in American GQ a few months earlier, that Dr John Britton wore a bullet‑proof vest, kept a loaded 357 Magnum handgun in his car, and that the 69-year‑old doctor had a defiant, shoot‑first attitude. The GQ article also noted that at least one of the Pensacola anti-abortion protesters was adamant that abortion doctors deserved to die, and believed "in the potentialities of murder". Indeed, the GQ journalist speculated that this protester might soon kill a doctor in Pensacola, perhaps even Dr Britton. The protester's name was Paul Hill.
With his wife and three children due to leave town on a family visit the following week, Hill would be free to plan his attack. That Saturday, he took the family to Pensacola beach, where he realised that this might be their last outing together. "God had opened a window of opportunity, and it appeared that I had been appointed to step through it."
For a few hours Hill was a typical father, playing with his infants in the sand, splashing in the waves. But as they left the beach, his thoughts were on the work ahead. “We brushed the sand from our things and walked back to the car. Neither Karen nor the children seemed alerted to anything. Like a man savouring his last supper, I enjoyed watching them through eyes unknown to them. But I decided to suspend final judgment as to whether I would act until the upcoming Monday.”
On Monday, Hill resolved to kill Dr Britton that Friday. By then he had gone from pondering a window of opportunity to the conviction that he was obeying God’s will. “If I had not acted when I did,” he claims, “it would have been a direct and unconscionable sin of disobedience. One of the first things I told my wife after the shooting was, 'I didn't have any choice!' That cry came from the depths of my soul. I was certain, and still am, that God called me to obey His revealed will at that particular time."
The morning of Friday, July 29 was a routine one for Dr John Baynard Britton. He woke at dawn and drove from his home in Fernandina Beach to nearby Jacksonville, where he took a plane to Pensacola, on the other side of the state, arriving at 7.15am. As usual, before leaving the airport, he ducked into the men's room and strapped on his bullet‑proof vest, ready for his day's work - which might involve the termination of a dozen or more pregnancies in a single day ‑ before flying back to Jacksonville. As a "circuit abortionist" ‑ the pro‑ lifes’ term for such doctors - Britton spent his weeks flying and driving to abortion clinics across the Gulf area, from Fort Walton Beach and Panama City in Florida, to Mobile and Montgomery in Alabama.
As usual, Britton was met at the airport by James Barrett, a 74‑year‑old retired US Air Force lieutenant, and his wife June, a 68‑year‑old retired nurse. Local pro‑choice supporters, the Barretts had volunteered to escort visiting doctors to and from the airport in their pick‑up truck. They also wore bullet‑proof vests. As usual, June moved to the back seat so that 'Doc' Britton could ride up front with Jim.
Five minutes later, they pulled into The Ladies Center expecting the normal crowd of hecklers and protestors, and were surprised to find Paul Hill standing alone, blocking the driveway, holding what looked like a pamphlet or newspaper. Barrett wondered aloud what he was doing, but Hill stood aside, so Barrett parked by the clinic door and got out to check that everything was OK. Hill was 20ft away. "For a second," June Barrett recalled, "I thought I saw a gun, perhaps covered. But then I realised that no, it couldn't be a gun."
She was wrong.
"Two thoughts sustained and impelled me as I went through this ordeal," Hill recalls. "The first was that if I did not intervene and prevent the abortionist from entering the clinic, he would kill two or three dozen children that day. The second and more prominent thought was that if I did not succeed in killing the abortionist, but merely wounded him, he would, in all probability, return to killing the unborn as soon as he was able. In the coming months and years, he would likely kill thousands of unborn children, under the security of the best police protection available. I was determined to prevent this."
As James Barrett got out of the vehicle, Hill fired four times with a 12‑gauge shot- that he had purchased two days before at a local gun shop. The shots struck Barrett in the head and upper body. June Barrett fell to the floor and burrowed under the front seat. Hill then moved around the truck, loaded three more shells and fired at Dr Britton, who was still sitting in the passenger seat. The shots blew out the remaining windows, covering June Barrett in shattered glass. When the shooting stopped, she was still under the seat, bleeding from a wound in her left arm. Then she saw blood pouring down from the front seat. Most of Britton's face had been blown away. Her husband lay outside, killed by a similar wound.
Hill laid the shotgun down and walked away calmly. He was arrested a few minutes later on the same street, still with several shells taped to his chest and legs. As he was placed into a police patrol car, he told an officer: "I know one thing. No innocent babies are going to be killed in that clinic today."
"Soon I was alone in a large one‑man cell," Hill remembers, "and could direct all my praise and thanks to the Lord that the only way to handle the pain of being separated from my family was to continually rejoice in the Lord for all that He had done."
Hill's trial was brief. The Judge Frank Bell sentenced him to death in 1994 after disallowing Hill's proposed defence that the shootings were justified to prevent the greater harm of abortion. Hill represented himself, offered only brief opening and closing statements focusing on his opposition to abortion, and declined to cross‑examine witnesses.
His entire closing statement was just four lines: "You have a responsibility to protect your neighbour's life, and to use force if necessary to do so. In an effort to suppress this truth, you may mix my blood with the blood of the unborn, and those who have fought to defend the oppressed. However, truth and righteousness will prevail. May God help you to protect the unborn as you would want to be protected."
Following a mandatory appeal in 1996, the Florida Supreme Court upheld Hill's conviction and sentence. The US Supreme Court refused to consider the case in 1997 when right‑wing attorney Roger Frechette of New Haven, Connecticut, took an appeal to the federal courts over Hill's objections. Judge Bell granted Hill's request to dismiss his lawyers in 1999, and since then Hill has waived all further appeals. “What was I to say?" demands Hill. "Since I could not tell the truth, I had almost nothing to say. There was no use in offering lame and ineffectual arguments ‑ doing so would only make it appear that I had been given a fair trial."
Could Paul Hill become a martyr to violent fundamentalist radicals? Might his execution stir up a fresh wave of bombings
and shootings at abortion clinics across the country? "Well, that's what he wants," says Dallas A. Blanchard, Pen
sacola's resident Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of West Florida, and author of Religious Violence and Abortion. "But I think he's spitting in the wind. Of course there will definitely be people who will regard this as an incitement to violence. But there are fewer and fewer of them." Blanchard says the decline of the criminal antiabortion movement began in 1993, with the FACE (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances) Act, which made it a federal crime to harass staff and blockade clinics.
Perhaps the clearest indication of the changing mood of the times comes from Clayton Lee Waagner, who once ranked just below Osama Bin Laden on the FBI's Most Wanted List. Waagner was arrested in 1999 with a Winnebago full of weapons and planning to kill an abortion provider. He then escaped from jail and unleashed an unprecedented wave of terror, posting a manifesto on the Army of God website in which he threatened to kill abortion‑clinic staff across the country.
He later claimed responsibility for delivering envelopes purporting to contain anthrax spores to over 550 clinics and abortion‑rights organisations in the aftermath of 9/11. Though the white powder in those envelopes was a hoax, crucial police and emergency resources were diverted during the height of the genuine anthrax scare.
Waagner was recaptured in December 2001 and awaits trial in Philadelphia on 79 federal terrorism charges. Instead of rallying the troops to the cause, his lunacy seems to have had a sobering effect. In a post 9/11 America, even the most vociferous pro‑lifers want nothing to do with a self‑proclaimed "enemy of America”, Meanwhile the radical fringe finds itself under attack in the courts, pursued by federal agents, and devoid of mainstream support. Waagner himself admits as much; in an open letter on the Army of God website, dated April 1, 2003, he laments the pathetic response to his previous posting. "I greatly overestimated the zeal of our movement... We think we are strong but we are not. Even our enemies overestimate our strength. I sent out hundreds of letters to anti-abortion and pro-life groups... Much to my disappointment, the response has been a dismal trickle and a great embarrassment."
Dallas Blanchard believes the current situation is comparable to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. "By the time Martin Luther King was assassinated, the tide had already turned. It was an act of desperation, but it failed to stem the social change that had already been unleashed."
Supporters of Paul Hill, however, are convinced that his sacrifice will not be in vain. "He is an authentic Christian martyr," says Donald Spitz, who maintains the Army of God website.
One thing is certain: in stark contrast to the murder of Dr Britton, Hill's passing will be relatively dignified ‑ if execution can ever be so described. As he lies strapped to a medical gurney, the execution team will connect several heart monitors to his chest. Two syringes will be inserted into his arm and connected, via medical tubing, to intravenous‑drip bottles in the executioner's room. First, a harmless saline solution will flow into his bloodstream. At the warden's signal, a curtain will rise, exposing the condemned man to the witnesses and media in an adjoining room. Next, a sedative anaesthetic called sodium thiopental will cause Hill to lose consciousness. Then a solution of pancuronium bromide will paralyse his entire muscle system and stop him breathing. Finally, a flow of potassium chloride will stop his heart. While medical ethics preclude doctors from actively participating in executions, a doctor will certify Hill's death ‑from anaesthetic overdose and respiratory and cardiac arrest.
June Barrett is now 77. After her husband's murder she moved to a retirement community in Maryland, where she serves on the board of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
She wrote to Governor Bush two years ago urging him to sign a death warrant, but received no response. She is still undecided as to whether she will attend, or if it might help resolve her lingering grief, but told the Pensacola News Journal she was pleased to learn about the impending execution. "It's timely," she said. "It's past time."
Paul Hill will die unrepentant. In an interview from Death Row, Hill smiled as he told a Florida news reporter, "I wouldn't advise them to give me my shotgun back and let me go, unless they wanted a similar outcome."