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Facing execution, he expects glory

Paul Hill, set to die today for killing two at an abortion clinic, expects "a great reward in heaven for my obedience."

By LEONORA LaPETER
Published September 3, 2003

STARKE - Paul Hill says he never expected to be executed for killing an abortion doctor and his escort in front of a Pensacola clinic nine years ago.

But Hill, 49, said Tuesday he will be honored to die today and expects God will welcome him into heaven.

"I didn't seek the death penalty; the state sought the death penalty," Hill said, a characteristic smile crossing his face. "I'm willing and feel very honored that they are most likely going to kill me for what I did. I'm certainly, to be quite honest, I'm expecting a great reward in heaven for my obedience."

Hill, who spoke to about two dozen reporters inside a visiting room at Florida State Prison, will be executed by lethal injection at 6 p.m. today barring unexpected delays.

The former Presbyterian minister, who said he has no remorse for what he considers justifiable homicide, said the toughest part has been saying goodbye to his wife, Karen, and their three children, who now live in West Memphis, Ark. His children were 3, 6 and 9 when he killed Dr. John Bayard Britton and his escort, retired Lt. Col. John Barrett, in 1994.

Hill said he prepared them for his death in letters and visits, telling them he trusts the Lord will care for them. Hill will not see his daughters again. He will meet with his parents, two sisters, wife and son today for a final visit.

No family members will witness his execution. Donald Spitz, Hill's spiritual adviser and an antiabortion activist, will be with Hill and watch as he dies. Abortion rights opponents and death penalty opponents are expected to hold a vigil outside the prison today.

Michael Hirsch, a Georgia lawyer who represented him before the Florida Supreme Court, met with Hill Tuesday morning. Hirsch devised the "justifiable homicide" defense that says the killing of abortion doctors is defensible to save the lives of unborn children. Hirsch, who was fired from Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice for supporting Hill, wanted to file a stay with the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the execution.

"I didn't discourage him ... so he's following his conscience and I'm following mine," Hill said.

The Florida Supreme Court last week rejected a motion by Hirsch to delay the execution.

Hill said Tuesday he is willing to "suffer the consequences for his actions," and he wants to go to heaven for what he did. "I'm looking forward to the glory, no question about it," he said.

For his last meal, Hill ordered a char-broiled sirloin steak, baked potato and broccoli with hollandaise sauce, iced tea and orange sherbet.

The pending execution prompted death threats against state officials, including the governor. Death penalty opponents worry that Hill will become a martyr to abortion rights opponents and that his execution will trigger a wave of violence against abortion clinics. Hill hopes they are right.

"I believe in the short and long term, more and more people will act on the principles for which I stand," Hill said.

Hill, whose blond hair has thinned so much he has a bald spot on the back of his head, used the first 30 minutes of the news conference to recount his life and the murders. He said he got involved with drugs as a teenager and then found God when he was 17. He became a minister, married his wife of 25 years and moved to West Palm Beach to practice his faith in an Orthodox Presbyterian church.

But he said he "wasn't that great a preacher" and the church didn't offer infant communion, which he thought was necessary. So he moved to a Pensacola church that did. Though he had been interested in the antiabortion movement since the seminary, he became more active in Pensacola, a hotbed for the movement.

Hill said his life changed in March 1993, when antiabortion protester Michael Griffin shot Dr. David Gunn outside Pensacola's other abortion clinic. He became a staunch supporter of the "justifiable homicide" defense and brought it to public attention on national TV. Since he didn't consider killing an abortion doctor to be murder, Hill didn't think he would be executed, he said Tuesday.

Hill said he acted alone to kill Britton, 69, of Fernandina Beach and Barrett, 74, of Pensacola at the Ladies Center, now Community Healthcare Center. He said his shotgun malfunctioned, so he purchased another and went for target practice several days before the killings at a local shooting range.

On July 29, 1994, Hill said he arrived early. Britton arrived a few minutes before the police escort, as Hill had observed him doing the previous Friday. Hill said he would have killed the police officer if he was in the way.

Hill said his goal was to bring attention to the antiabortion movement and to stop Barrett from performing abortions. The fact that abortions continue at that clinic, and across the country, does not mean he failed, Hill said.

Britton's stepdaughter, Catherine Britton Fairbanks, a researcher, writer and artist who lives in North Carolina, came to Starke on Tuesday to join an antideath penalty group, Floridians Against the Death Penalty, in asking that Hill not be put to death for murdering her stepfather.

"Just because Paul Hill murdered doesn't give me or anybody else the right to take a life," Fairbanks said in a recent interview. "His means doesn't justify any other killing. Executing him is the same as what he did, and that's what the state is doing."

Gov. Jeb Bush was unswayed. "I'm not going to change the deeply held views that I have on that, because others have deeply held views that disagree," Bush said Tuesday. "I totally respect them, and they should respect what the rule of law is in our state."

[Last modified September 3, 2003, 01:32:04]


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