Is Murder 'Justifiable Homicide'?

For months paul hill was a regular on the picket lines outside abortion clinics in Pensacola, Fla., holding aloft a sign that read abortionists are murderers. murderers should be executed. Last week the former Presbyterian minister practiced what he preached, local police said, shooting a doctor and two volunteer security guards as they sat in a pickup truck parked outside a clinic. Dr. John Britton, 69, had been wearing a bulletproof vest to work ever since Dr. David Gunn was fatally shot outside another Pensacola abortion clinic 17 months ago. But the vest did him little good. Britton and James Barrett, 74, died of shotgun wounds to the head. Barrett's 68-year-old wife, June, a retired nurse, was hit in the arm but survived the attack.

Hill, who was arrested as he ran from the parking lot of Pensacola's Ladies Center, had been gunning for abortion doctors -- rhetorically -- for more than a year. He founded a small militant anti-abortion group known as Defensive Action, and appeared on "Donahue," "Nightline" and CNN defending Gunn's murder as "a fulfillment of the commandment of Christ." "If an abortionist is about to violently take an innocent person's life, you are entirely morally justified in trying to prevent him . . . " he said in one of many interviews last year. That incendiary rhetoric worried leaders of some mainstream pro-life groups. Hill's brand of "justifiable homicide" was the subject of long debate at a high-level meeting of pro-life groups in Chicago last April. According to Joseph Scheidler, executive director of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, about 40 participants at the meeting said they could sanction violence on moral grounds, even if they rejected it as a tactic. Other pro-life leaders were far more blunt in denouncing such acts. "Paul Hill is a pariah, a vigilante with only a handful of supporters," said the Rev. Pat Mahoney, a spokesman for Operation Rescue in Washington, last week.

Abortion-rights activists said Britton's shooting -- the third such incident since the spring of 1993 -- was clear evidence of a surge in violence, and they called on federal authorities to intervene more aggressively to protect abortion clinics. Last spring Congress passed legislation tightening restrictions on anti-abortion protesters, and made it a federal crime to threaten or use force against clinic patients or employees. Just last month the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Florida injunction creating a 36-foot no-picket zone around a local clinic. But critics say that such laws offer little real protection. Britton's murder seemed almost preordained after he was profiled at length in GQ magazine last February. Britton talked of elaborate security measures to protect himself from anti-abortion extremists like Hill, who was named in the article. Britton even posed for a photo wearing his bulletproof vest. Last week New York Rep. Charles Schumer called on the FBI to infiltrate pro-life activist groups, as it once probed the Ku Klux Klan, to stop future "terrorist" attacks.

The problem for law-enforcement officials is determining when free speech becomes a criminal conspiracy. Until recently Hill himself seemed content to espouse violence, not carry it out: "I believe my particular gifts better suit me to proclaiming this truth from a Biblical perspective," he told Newsweek last February. "If somebody [kills] as a result of what I'm saying, so be it." Last week, however, Hill allegedly crossed the line from talk to deadly action.