MIAMI - He once told an audience of Phil Donahue's television show that killing a doctor who performs abortions was as justifiable as killing Hitler. Then one July morning, he took a pump-action shotgun and fatally shot a doctor and his escort outside a women's clinic in Florida's Panhandle.
Tomorrow, Paul Hill is scheduled to die at Florida State Prison. The former Christian minister, a murderer in the eyes of the state but a hero and a future martyr to some, will become the first convicted killer of a physician who performed abortions to be executed in the United States.
His followers call the capital penalty against him a crime in itself, while clinics and doctors who perform abortions are worried it will revive radical, potentially lethal opposition against them.
"We expect the execution will trigger further violence," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, a professional association of clinics based in Washington. "Between now and the end of the year, we are extremely concerned about abortion providers being targeted for murder and extreme violence."
The Rev. Don Spitz, a Pentecostal minister from Chesapeake, Va., Hill's spiritual adviser, has been visiting him in his north Florida prison. Spitz, who contends Hill did a "good thing" by "saving the lives of unborn children," also predicted that the death sentence, if carried out, would spark violent outrage.
"I've received innumerable e-mails and phone calls from people who express deep anguish and fury that this has happened to him," Spitz said. "Since the very beginning, there has been a feeling that if Paul Hill was executed, there would be a rise in reaction."
As Hill's hour in Florida's death chamber nears, Spitz expects antiabortion activists from throughout the United States to converge on the prison near Starke.
An anti-death penalty group plans its own demonstration tomorrow and has called on Gov. Jeb Bush to halt the execution by lethal injection and instead sentence Hill, 49, to life imprisonment without parole.
"Hill committed his crime to get a platform to express his agenda," said Abraham J. Bonowitz, director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. "Now, he's being given another 15 minutes of fame, and he's going to have a press conference where he can tell the whole world: `Go do what I did.' It's irresponsible and dangerous to give a terrorist the opportunity to encourage more terrorism."
Death-threat letters protesting Hill's pending execution, each accompanied by a bullet, have been received in the mail by Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist and two top-ranking state prison officials, said Kristen Perezluha, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The anonymous letters are being investigated, she said.
The FBI, in its latest weekly bulletin to state and local law enforcement agencies, notified them of Hill's pending execution. "We have no specific information that any violence is planned, but are requesting [that] local law enforcement pass along any information they may have," a federal law enforcement official in Washington said.
The National Abortion Federation, whose 400 members provide more than half the estimated 1.2 million abortions performed annually in the United States, has already alerted clinics and their personnel to be on high security alert, Saporta said.
In the past decade there have been at least 10 attempts to kill doctors or others involved in abortion services in the United States and Canada, either by firearms or bombs, according to the National Abortion Federation. The most recent killing was in 1998, when Dr. Barnett Slepian was fatally shot in his home in Amherst, N.Y.
Doctor, driver killed
According to police reports, Hill shot Dr. John Britton, 69, and his volunteer driver and escort, James Barrett, 74, in the head with a shotgun as they arrived at a Pensacola abortion clinic in a pickup truck July 29, 1994. Barrett's wife, June, was also injured, but she survived.
The previous year, the lanky, blond and bespectacled Hill had gone on Donahue to defend the 1993 slaying of a doctor who performed abortions in the same Florida city.
"I'm advocating the consistent theology of the Bible, and that is that we must protect innocent life," Hill told the television audience.
Michael Griffin, the man convicted in the shooting death of Dr. David Gunn, the Pensacola abortion clinic doctor killed in 1993, is now serving a life term in prison. According to the National Abortion Federation, it was the first murder of an abortion provider in the country.
Hill was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, and smiled when the sentence of death was pronounced at his trial.
For many antiabortion activists, Hill's action and the use of Scripture to justify it are abhorrent. "Most Christians in the pro-life movement, they know what Paul Hill did is wrong," said Daniel Michael, who operates a ministry with his wife in Highland, Ill., that attempts to persuade women intending to have abortions to give birth.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.