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Abortion clinics fear execution fallout
( 2003-09-04 15:06) (Agencies)

The execution of Paul Hill for the murders of an abortion doctor and his bodyguard left abortion providers holding their breath, wary that the former minister may become a martyr to the anti-abortion cause and spur others to act violently.

While the mainstream anti-abortion community largely dismissed Hill as a fringe character, his supporters including a small but vocal group that stood outside the prison as Hill was put to death Wednesday believe he was rewarded with glory in heaven for his actions.

Florida abortion clinics and police were on heightened alert for reprisals. Several officials connected to the case received threatening letters last week, accompanied by rifle bullets.

"We're very concerned," said Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation in Washington. "We know that certain events can and do trigger increased violence."

Hill, 49, was executed by injection at Florida State Prison for the 1994 shotgun murders of Dr. John Bayard Britton and Britton's unarmed bodyguard, James Barrett, outside a Pensacola abortion clinic.

When officers arrested Hill minutes later, he told them, "I know one thing, no innocent babies are going to be killed in that clinic today."

Hill, whose own murderous rampage was inspired by a 1993 shooting death of another abortion doctor, was remorseless to the end, even using his last statement to urge others to take up his cause.

"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. "May God help you to protect the unborn as you would want to be protected."

Most leaders in the anti-abortion community have condemned Hill's actions and have spoken out against clinic violence, saying murder does not advance their cause.

"We think that unborn children should be protected and it should be through law," said Sheila Hopkins, a spokeswoman for the Florida Catholic Conference. "We definitely reject his statement that it was justifiable homicide."

Still, police officers in Jacksonville were posted outside several clinics. In Gainesville, where there was false bomb threat at one clinic Wednesday, officers were present at all area facilities.

"The bottom line is when you work in the industry, you're aware those people are out there every single day," said Marti McKenzie, a spokeswoman for Dr. James S. Pendergraft, who runs several clinics around the state.

State law enforcement agents and the FBI were investigating threats made before Hill's execution, in the form of letters warning that if he were put to death some state officials might face danger.

Bullets were mailed in letters to the judge who sentenced Hill, to state Attorney General Charlie Crist and to two state prison officials. The letters also implicitly threatened Gov. Jeb Bush, who signed Hill's death warrant. The governor said he would not be "bullied" into stopping the execution.

The killings of Britton and Barrett happened during a time of increased violence at clinics nationwide. Another abortion doctor had been killed in Pensacola in 1993 by Michael Griffin, who is serving a life sentence. Two receptionists were killed at Boston-area abortion clinics in 1994 by John Salvi, who committed suicide in prison two years later.

Since losing his automatic appeals, Hill did not fight his execution and insisted up to the day before his death that he would be forgiven by God for killing to save the unborn.

A handful of anti-abortion protesters gathered across the road from the prison Wednesday and expressed their support for what Hill did, saying any others who feel called upon to do so would be justified in attacking abortion providers.

"I think it's legitimate to consider," said Drew Heiss, an abortion protester from Milwaukee, Wis. "I wouldn't condemn someone if they were called to do it."

Heiss held a sign outside the prison saying, "Paul Hill can be killed, but his message will never die."

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