Fla. doctor killed at abortion protest Authorities call slaying of physician first event of its kind in the U.S.

March 11, 1993|By Larry Rohter | Larry Rohter,New York Times News Service

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- An anti-abortion demonstrator shot and killed a doctor yesterday during a protest outside his clinic, then surrendered, police said. Authorities said the slaying was the first of its kind in the nation.

The doctor, David Gunn, was shot in the back several times as he got out of his car at the Pensacola Women's Medical Services clinic he opened last month. The 47-year-old Dr. Gunn, who performed abortions at several clinics in Florida and Alabama, died in surgery at Sacred Heart Hospital two hours later.

Michael F. Griffin, 31, of Pensacola, who was apparently waiting for the doctor behind the clinic, was arrested and charged with murder.

Moments after the shooting, said John Burt, the organizer of the protest, Mr. Griffin came around from the back of the building, approached a police officer, and said, "I've just shot Dr. Gunn."

The Pensacola police said they found Dr. Gunn lying on the ground in back of the clinic, with three gunshot wounds on his back. A .38-caliber revolver was retrieved from the area, said Officer Brian Barton.

Mr. Burt said he did not see Mr. Griffin at the demonstration until after the shooting. But, he said, Mr. Griffin had told him on Sunday at a prayer service that he would take part in the demonstration and at the same church service had offered a prayer for the salvation of Dr. Gunn.

Mr. Burt said praying for abortion doctors to be saved was relatively common in his group, and it raised no suspicions.

Mr. Burt, who has been arrested for his own anti-abortion activities, said yesterday that the protesters, made up of people from several local churches, had not intended any violence when they assembled at 9 a.m. at the shopping center where the clinic is situated.

"I think all life is sacred, and Dr. Gunn and Michael Griffin are both victims of abortion," said Mr. Burt, who is affiliated with Rescue America, a Houston-based anti-abortion group that organizes clinic blockades.

The police have not given a motive for the shooting, but Officer Barton said they were almost certain it was related to abortion, although they provided no details. He also noted that Mr. Griffin was apparently not an active member of any group.

While some of the more radical anti-abortion groups said they would "not mourn" the death of a doctor who performed abortions, most said they could not condone any form of killing.

Abortion rights groups denounced the killing as another example of the increasing violence against abortion clinics nationwide.

According to the National Abortion Federation, which represents clinics, incidents of reported vandalism more than doubled from 1991 to 1992, and cases of arson rose from four in 1990 to 12 last year.

Last month, the fire-bombing of a clinic in Corpus Christi, Texas, razed a building and caused $1 million in damage.

And this week in California, four health care workers were hospitalized with respiratory problems after strong-smelling butyric acid was sprayed into eight clinics in Riverside and San Diego counties, said Kate Harris, executive director of the California Abortion Rights Action League.

"Planned Parenthood is outraged and gravely concerned about the escalation of violence that has gripped reproductive-health clinics across the country," said Dr. Pamela Maraldo, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "The murder of a physician outside a Florida clinic is an obscene and cowardly act.

"It is the most vicious act yet in an ongoing campaign of clinic harassment and terrorism that includes chemical warfare," she said.

Rescue America, the Houston-based anti-abortion group with which Mr. Burt is affiliated, said it did not condone the killing of Dr. Gunn.

But, said Don Treshman, the national director of the group, "while [Dr.] Gunn's death is unfortunate, it's also true that quite a number of babies' lives will be saved."

Abortion-rights groups say the shooting of Dr. Gunn also stood as a symbol of the increasing harassment of doctors who do abortions -- a phenomenon that has made it increasingly difficult for clinics to find doctors willing to perform the procedure.

Some anti-abortion groups say harassment of physicians is now one of their most effective tactics.

"We've found the weak link is the doctor," Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, said at a rally in Melbourne, Fla., last weekend. "We're going to expose them. We're gong to humiliate them."

Pensacola, in the politically conservative Florida Panhandle, has long been a target of anti-abortion protests.

On Christmas Day in 1984, two doctors' offices and a clinic, the Ladies Center, were bombed by anti-abortion protesters, who were convicted and imprisoned.

Until Dr. Gunn opened his new clinic a month ago, the Ladies Center was the only clinic in Pensacola performing abortions, said Mr. Burt, a longtime anti-abortion activist who was arrested following a 1986 incident when he and others went into the

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