Backlash feared as anti-abortionist who murdered doctor faces death penalty

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The Independent US

Paul Hill has no regrets. When he thinks of his scheduled execution tomorrow and the act that brought him to the 7 by 12-foot cell on Florida's death row, it makes him smile.

"You have a responsibility to protect your neighbour's life, and to use force if necessary to do so," he said in a statement posted on the internet. "In an effort to suppress this truth, you may mix my blood with the blood of the unborn."

Barring an unlikely last-minute reprieve, Hill, 49, a former Presbyterian minister who shot and killed a doctor who provided abortions, will be executed on Wednesday evening in the first such case in US history. Some observers believe his death will not only fuel the debate about abortion but may also trigger further attacks on doctors and clinics.

To his militant supporters, Hill, a married father of three, is set to become a martyr for the anti-abortion cause. The comments posted on a website by one supporter, Joshua Conlon, are typical: "Thinking of examples like you who are martyrs for Christ and His brethren... I am beside myself! You and your family are in my prayers, and in my heart!!"

In 1993, the bespectacled churchman went on the television chat show Donahue to defend Michael Griffin, a man charged with murdering David Gunn, a doctor who had provided abortions in the Florida city of Pensacola. The action had been as moral, Hill told the audience, as killing Hitler or someone who was murdering children in a playground.

Had the matter ended there, people may have thought little more of Hill, concentrating on Griffin, who was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment. But Hill was not content simply to defend Griffin's action. One morning the following July, he took a pump-action shotgun, waited outside a Pensacola abortion clinic and shot dead Dr John Britton, 69, and his 74-year-old volunteer driver, James Barrett, as they arrived in a pick-up truck. Mr Barrett's wife June was also injured in the shooting.

Hill, a native of Miami who attended a religious seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, before being ordained in the Presbyterian Church of America, reportedly smiled when he was convicted and again when the death sentence was read. According to those who have visited him in his final days at Florida State Prison in Starke, Hill is still joking and smiling.

Don Spitz, Hill's spiritual adviser and one of those due to attend the execution, told The Independent by telephone: "He is doing very well, he is very positive. He has no regrets. He has never wavered about what he thought was the right thing he did. He has always believed he did the right thing."

Mr Spitz, a Virginia-based member of a militant anti-abortion group, the Army of God, said the condemned man believed that by killing Dr Britton he had saved the lives of 32 unborn babies who were due to be "murdered that morning".

Mr Spitz, who has signed a so-called "defensive action statement" drafted by Hill that authorises the use of force to prevent abortions, said many people believed his execution would lead to further attacks on abortion clinics and those who worked there.

"I have no message [for anyone contemplating such an attack]," he said. "[But] I know that innocent babies deserve to be protected."

Many of those opposed to Hill are also opposed to his execution, aware of how it may be used by anti-abortion militants. Vicki Saporta, the president of the National Abortion Federation, told the Los Angeles Times: "We expect the execution will trigger further violence. We are extremely concerned about abortion providers being targeted for murder."

In the last decade there have been at least 10 attempts to kill doctors and other staff at abortion clinics in the US and Canada, Ms Saporta said. The most recent was in 1998, when Dr Barnett Slepian was killed in his home in Amherst, New York.

Those opposed to the death penalty - including Dr Britton's family - have appealed to the Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush to commute Hill's sentence to life imprisonment. He is unlikely to do so. Last month the President's brother told reporters that Hill's claim that he was acting in the name of God was "an incredible distortion of the Christian faith". He added: "This man brutally murdered people, cold-blooded, premeditated. To do it for life?s sake makes it even sicker."

A spokeswoman for the Governor's office, Alia Faraj, said that unless a court ordered a reprieve, the execution, by lethal injection, would go ahead as scheduled at around 6pm local time (11pm BST). "He was tried and convicted by a jury of his peers," she said.