Doctor's killer pleads insanity

A STATE judge will decide today whether a Florida man who shot and killed an abortion doctor can plead temporary insanity. The plea could save the 32-year-old former chemical plant worker, Michael Griffin, from the electric chair. And it could have a significant impact on the political and moral battle over abortion.

Mr Griffin confessed last March to killing the doctor, David Gunn, immediately after shooting him in the back as he was walking into an abortion clinic in Pensacola, a conservative naval base in Florida. In Mr Griffin's trial, which began this week, the defence wants to show that he was driven temporarily insane by constant exposure to films, videos, aborted foetuses and 'effigies of nurses and physicians' given him by the anti-abortion lobby.

The defence contends that a local anti-abortion activist, John Burt, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan who found religion 15 years ago and became a minister, was largely responsible for unbalancing Mr Griffin's mind. Even though he may have pulled the trigger on Gunn, the defence plans to argue that Mr Griffin's action was not premeditated and thus not first-degree murder carrying the death penalty.

The crime was so cold-blooded that the jury may reject the plea, but even so some pro-abortionists feel its airing in court will help their cause. 'One of the points we have been making is that the escalating rhetoric of the anti-choice movement has created a climate of violence,' said James Wagoner of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

'The shooting of Dr Gunn is not an isolated incident. Physicians across the country have to wear bullet-proof vests and have put bullet-proof glass in their windows because of this campaign of terror.'

Since Gunn's death and the wounding of another abortion doctor in Kansas last summer, the anti- abortion militants have been losing ground politically and legally. The Supreme Court has ruled that groups who try to close down abortion clinics through intimidation and violence are liable for prosecution under the anti-racketeering law normally used against organised crime. This means that damages, if awarded, would be tripled, and break the back of even the best- funded groups.

In addition, the FBI announced last week that after years of re sistance to the idea it is investigating death threats against clinic operators and doctors. There were more than 70 such threats in 1993, plus 17 arson or bombing attempts, nine assaults and 113 cases of vandalism. During the Reagan-Bush years, when the White House boosted the anti-abortion cause, the FBI backed away from such investigations, claiming it was a local matter. But Janet Reno, President Clinton's Attorney-General, has promised to make anti-abortion violence a federal priority.

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