Trial in Florida to test federal law on violent protests at abortion clinics

October 03, 1994|By New York Times News Service

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- The first major federal trial involving the 4-month-old law designed to curb violent and disruptive demonstrations at abortion clinics will start here today in the case of a 40-year-old former minister charged in the shooting deaths of an abortion doctor and his bodyguard.

The trial of Paul Hill comes just two months after he was arrested in the deaths of Dr. John Britton, 69, and James Barrett, 74, who were killed with a shotgun as they sat in a parked car outside the Pensacola Ladies Clinic on July 29. And it comes well before the state trial on murder charges, in which a guilty verdict could mean the death penalty.

The swiftness of the case coming to trial has been unanimously and loudly applauded by abortion-rights supporters around the country.

They said the prosecution highlights a new determination among federal officials to control violence growing out of the battle over abortion rights. Such a determination, they said, was not evident in the years of the Reagan and Bush administrations, when dozens of clinics were firebombed or blockaded and their workers intimidated and assaulted.

"For the 12 years before this current administration, the silence at the executive level actually contributed to the extremist feelings of the anti-abortion movement, legitimized and gave license to the use of some extreme tactics," said Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League. "This trial sends a very different message."

Patricia Ireland, the director of the National Organization for Women, agreed.

She added, "If we can't get a firm and clean conviction" in a case that involves a killing at a clinic, "then it might signal that there will be problems in the future in prosecuting lesser forms of intimidation."

The same unanimity does not exist among opponents of abortion. The case has bared divisions that appear to be part theological, part philosophical and part tactical.

For some, like the Rev. Flip Benham, it is a meaningless and nettlesome "showcase trial" being staged by the abortion-rights supporters inside and outside the Clinton administration to portray their movement as more about "Conan the Messiah than Jesus the Messiah."

Mr. Benham is the national director of Operation Rescue, the group that has staged scores of protests and blockades at clinics nationally.

"This trial is nothing but a showcase to say that Christians can't be trusted around abortion mills and to stop us from demonstrating," said Mr. Benham, who is based in Dallas.

"The media invented Paul Hill as a pro-life leader so that with broad brush strokes they could paint all of Christendom with his wild-eyed lunacy," he said.

Under the federal law in Mr. Hill's case, there is a maximum penalty of life in prison, but most legal experts agree that because of federal guidelines, Mr. Hill would be unlikely to receive the maximum if convicted because, among other things, he has no previous felony convictions.

The decision to prosecute under the federal law first was unusual. But early on, both Gov. Lawton M. Chiles Jr. of Florida and the state attorney general, Robert Butterworth, urged the federal prosecutors to go first, citing what tends to be a long period of pretrial disclosure of prosecution evidence required in state murder trials and the need to send a quick signal to deter other violence.

Caroline Tesche, legal director of the Feminist Majority Foundation and a former prosecutor in Florida, said the federal charges require a more narrow standard of proof, making a conviction easier to obtain.

Also, she said, jury selection in the federal case will be easier because, unlike in the state trial, jurors would not face extensive questioning on their views about the death penalty.

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