Protester is found guilty of killing abortion doctor

March 06, 1994|By Boston Globe

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- Michael Griffin, branded by the prosecution as an "assassin" who stalked and shot a doctor outside a Pensacola women's clinic, was convicted yesterday of first-degree murder in a case that dramatized the growing climate of violence surrounding the abortion issue.

The jury, whose members were kept anonymous by a court order because of the passions aroused by the case, deliberated for more than three hours before reaching the verdict.

Griffin was sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment with no prospect of parole for 25 years.

The verdict, delivered after five days of testimony, came almost exactly a year after David Gunn, a 47-year-old physician who regularly performed abortions at clinics in three Southern states, was shot to death last March 10 as he approached the back door of a Pensacola facility while an anti-abortion rally swirled in front of the building less than a hundred steps away.

Dr. Gunn was the first doctor slain as a result of violence against U.S. abortion clinics. Arson, bombings, chemical attacks and break-ins have been reported by clinic employees nationwide.

Griffin declined to make a statement before being sentenced.

"Good luck to you, Mr. Griffin," was Escambia Circuit Judge John Parnham's final comment after sentencing him.

The state prosecutor, Jim Murray, contended in his closing argument that a "mountain of evidence" established that Griffin planned the murder for several days.

Mr. Murray repeatedly described Griffin as an "assassin." He said a procession of state witnesses provided "cold, hard, unrebutted evidence" that Griffin had prayed for Dr. Gunn's soul at a Sunday church service, then three days later prowled a parking lot, waiting 45 minutes, before he shot the doctor.

"This is premeditation," Mr. Murray said, arguing for a conviction for first-degree murder.

Several witnesses, including two police officers, testified that Griffin acknowledged shooting Dr. Gunn moments after the incident. Another witness identified Griffin as the man she saw firing at the doctor. A .38-caliber pistol, which was linked to Griffin's family, was also introduced as the murder weapon.

A key prosecution witness was Brenda Fuqua, a corrections officer at the jail where Griffin has been held for nearly a year. She testified that she overheard Griffin tell his wife the day after the slaying, "I killed him because of my beliefs and convictions . . . and if I spend the rest of my life in jail it will be worth it to save one baby."

In an unusual bargain before the trial began, Griffin's attorneys dropped their objection to Ms. Fuqua's testimony in exchange for a promise by the prosecution not to seek the death penalty.

Griffin stood trial on a first-degree murder charge. However, the jury had the option to deliver verdicts on two lesser charges involving second-degree murder and manslaughter.

Griffin, 32, who wiped tears from his eyes shortly before the case went to the jury, did not testify. He had sobbed openly Friday as John Burt, a leader of the anti-abortion movement here, described a funeral for fetuses.

Although Judge Parnham had ruled earlier that Griffin could not use insanity as a defense, Griffin's attorneys built their case around an unorthodox claim that the defendant had been unduly influenced by Mr. Burt and another zealous fundamentalist minister in the days before the fatal shooting.

According to testimony, Mr. Burt kept an effigy of Dr. Gunn with a noose around the neck and red paint splattered on the gloves.

Bob Kerrigan, the chief defense attorney, went so far as to suggest that Don Gratton, another minister at the demonstration, might have fired the fatal shot. However, he was unable to introduce evidence to support the theory.

Mr. Gratton was called as a witness Friday and asked by Mr. Kerrigan, "What kind of Christian minister are you? Is there a place in your religion that advocates the killing of human beings?"

Mr. Gratton, who denied any involvement in the shooting, answered, "Not the cold-blooded murder of any human being, whether he be a pediatrician, an abortionist, a podiatrist or a lawyer."

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