'He's not a martyr'

National | DOMESTIC TERRORISM: At Paul Hill's execution, supporters of anti-abortion terrorism hope their hero's death will spark more violence; mainstream pro-lifers, meanwhile, continue to emphasize victory by peaceful persuasion

Issue: "Pryor commitment," Sept. 13, 2003

By 6:08 p.m. it was, as they say in the South, all over but the shouting. The shouting went on for a few minutes more, but mainstream pro-lifers say that's a few minutes too many.

Paul Hill, who received a lethal injection on Sept. 3, was the first murderer of an abortionist to be put to death for his crime. To the end, he regarded his crime as more than merely justified; he said he expected a reward in heaven. In his last minutes, he painted himself a martyr and called on others to follow his grisly example. "May God help you to protect the unborn as you would want to be protected," he said, just before the state prison warden signaled the executioner to start the flow of drugs.

His last-breath exhortation touched off fears of renewed violence at abortion clinics around the country. Although the small band of anti-abortion terrorists and their supporters has been nearly dormant in recent years, some worried that the execution of Mr. Hill could provide the catalyst for new attacks. Several Florida government officials with a role in the execution received rifle bullets in the mail, and security at the prison was extraordinarily high. More than 100 law-enforcement officers kept a wary eye on 60 or so admirers of Mr. Hill who braved an afternoon thunderstorm to protest his execution.

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About 15 minutes before the injection, the pro-Hill crowd gathered to sing hymns like "How Great Thou Art." But 20-year-old James Cowan, who flew in from Pittsburgh to lend his support, didn't join in. Standing in the rain-sodden field across from the prison, he watched the flashes of lightning from a nearby thunderstorm. "They're injecting him," Mr. Cowan mused. "Too bad. If there were a power outage ..."

Nearby, the Rev. David Trosch, a Roman Catholic priest from Alabama whose bishop stripped him of his parish because of his belief in "justifiable homicide," tried to make the moral case for Mr. Hill's actions. "Did it save more babies than all of pro-life put together? I think so. God was clear in Exodus. By God's command, morally all of these [abortion doctors] should be put to death."

Just down the road, a much smaller crowd braved not only the rain and lightning, but also the jeers of the pro-Hill protesters. "As a Christian, I'm offended that someone would take the Bible and use it to kill," said Ruben Israel, a pro-lifer who traveled from Los Angeles to show his support for the execution. "I think Gov. Bush is doing the right thing here in allowing this. Overall, I think people-like me-believe abortion is wrong, but I wouldn't murder someone."

As if to reinforce their distance from Mr. Hill, top leaders of the pro-life movement stayed away from the execution site. The fallout from Mr. Hill's vigilante justice has been "absolutely negative" for the pro-life cause, according to Matt Waters of CareNet. "[Pro-choicers] still raise money off of bulletproof vests. It's a fundraiser for them-a tragedy for us."

And a personal tragedy as well, say those who remember Mr. Hill before he turned violent. "I knew Paul, and he seemed to me like a pretty straight arrow," said Joe Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League. Mr. Scheidler recalled one telephone conversation in particular in which the two men discussed the theory-just a theory, at the time-of justifiable homicide. "He said he'd never do it. I don't know what happened to him. He said he'd never do it."

Still, Mr. Scheidler had no tears for his former ally gone awry. "Those old guys are gone. We're winning by conversion. The movement has moved on. We didn't like violence then and we don't like it now. Paul Hill is way in the past. He's not a hero. He's not a martyr.

"He took two lives that could have been changed. You never know when they [abortionists] are going to clean out their desks."

-with reporting by John Dawson in Starke, Fla.


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