STARKE, Fla. - Paul Hill, a former minister turned killer, was executed by lethal injection yesterday at Florida State Prison, becoming the first American put to death for anti-abortion violence.
Hill, 49, was pronounced dead at 6:08 p.m. His last words were a call to arms for abortion opponents.
"If you believe abortion is a lethal force, you should oppose the force and do what you have to do to stop it," Hill said calmly, lying beneath a white sheet and strapped to a gurney.
A moment later, Florida State Prison Warden Joe Thompson gave the order to begin the lethal injection. Hill remained still, his eyelids fluttering slightly. His chest heaved, and he exhaled audibly. A minute later, he stopped moving.
Hill's ominous final statement was prefaced by a thunderclap, which echoed just as the curtain in the glass-plated death chamber parted, allowing 15 official witnesses and 14 reporters to view his last moments.
Witnesses included Hill's spiritual adviser, the Rev. Donald Spitz; Atlanta attorney Michael Hirsh, who filed an unsuccessful appeal on Hill's behalf with the U.S. Supreme Court; and former state Rep. George Albright, a Republican from nearby Ocala.
Citing security concerns prompted by anonymous threatening letters sent last month to several state officials and the judge who sentenced Hill, prison officials declined to release the list of witnesses. But no family members of either Hill or his victims attended the execution, officials said.
Hill was condemned for the shotgun slayings of Dr. John Britton and his volunteer guard James Barrett as they arrived at a Pensacola abortion clinic in 1994, a double murder that capped a decade of violence by anti-abortion advocates in the Panhandle city.
Outside the razor-wired prison in this north Florida town yesterday, a crowd of about 80 abortion opponents and anti-death penalty advocates gathered in an open field to protest Hill's execution.
Many in the sign-waving crowd outside the prison said Hill was innocent of any crime.
"Abortion doctors commit premeditated, cold-blooded murder 10 or 20 times a day," said the Rev. David Trosch, a Catholic priest from Mobile, Ala. "What Paul Hill did was absolutely justified."
A number of Hill allies predicted that his recent calls for violence against abortion clinics will inspire others.
"I've never been remorseful," said John Brockheft, a member of the anti-abortion group Army of God, who said he spent time in prison for transporting explosives to Florida in the 1980s. "I never promised I wouldn't do it again."
A married father of three, Hill had told reporters in a jailhouse interview Tuesday that he is a martyr in the anti-abortion cause and hoped his death would inspire more attacks.
Hill spent yesterday morning saying goodbye to his wife, 18-year-old son, parents and two sisters. He met earlier this week with his two daughters, ages 15 and 13.
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.