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STORY SEARCH: Past 30 days | What's available

PUBLISHED SUNDAY, AUGUST 24, 2003

Hill lives in world of black and white

Abortion opponent still unrepentant about 2 murders

Read also: Nine years after crime, Hill prepares for death
Lines blur as death penalty, abortion collide
'I want it to be over'

Brett Norman
@PensacolaNewsJournal.com

Paul Hill described his wife, Karen, as a woman of "beauty and grace."

He wrote of frolicking in the Pensacola Beach sand and splashing in the Gulf with his three young children: Justin, Gloria and Joy.

But Hill`s "precious family," as he called them in an online account of his battle against abortion, was not his most important concern.

The graduate of a Presbyterian seminary and a former small- town pastor is a single-minded fanatic, willing to martyr himself for his cause.

Hill, 49, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Sept. 3 after being convicted of murder in the slayings nine years ago of Dr. John Britton, 69, and his escort, retired Air Force Lt. Col. James Barrett, 74, outside The Ladies Center on North Ninth Avenue.

After more than a year of picketing Pensacola abortion clinics and exhorting the "justifiable homicide" of abortion providers, Hill shot Britton and Barrett as they emerged from a pickup on July 29, 1994.

Today, after more than nine years on death row, the lanky man with a constant grin remains unrepentant.

Main News Photo

Police crime scene investigators photograph the bullet-riddled truck in which Dr. John Britton and his escort, James Barrett, were riding when they were gunned down by Paul Hill on July 29, 1994. Barrett's wife, June, was wounded in the shooting. Hill is scheduled to be executed Sept. 3.

News Journal file photo

When Circuit Judge Frank Bell refused to allow him to argue that the killings were necessary to prevent the greater harm of abortion, Hill elected not to mount a defense at all.

He refused to pursue appeals, other than a mandatory one to the Florida Supreme Court. He long since has dismissed attorneys who tried to come to his aid.

Paul Hill is ready to die.

He believes that his execution will prevent more abortions.

"I didn`t know for certain that my allowing them to kill me would result in fewer children being killed, but it seemed probable that this would be the result," he wrote from death row.

The week before Hill killed Britton and Barrett, he took his wife and children - then ages 9, 6 and 3 - for a final trip to Pensacola Beach.

He wrote that his wife had no idea of the plans swirling in his head.

"We dug in the sand, splashed in the water and walked along the beach on the wet sand," he wrote. "All the while, I weighed my plans in my mind, being careful not to arouse suspicion."

A few days later, Hill`s wife and children left town on a long- planned trip. They would be shielded from what he was about to do.

He purchased a shotgun and laid an ambush.

He knew the consequences, but they didn`t matter.

"Though I would almost surely be removed from my precious family, I knew that God would somehow work everything out," he wrote.

Troubled beginning

Hill grew up in Coral Gables, where his middle-class family attended Granada Presbyterian Church, a part of the conservative-leaning Presbyterian Church in America.

As a teenager, Hill showed rebellious - and even violent - tendencies.

In April 1971, when he was 17, his father, Oscar Hill, turned him in on assault charges, saying he wanted his son to get treatment for a drug problem, according to a Coral Gables police report.

When the high school student was searched by a police officer, a small bag of marijuana fell from his clothing. His father turned over 11 more bags.

Hill wrote online that he was saved later that year.

After high school, in 1973, he traveled to Jackson, Miss., to attend Belhaven College, a Christian liberal arts institution.

He immersed himself in abortion opposition in Jackson, pioneering the "sidewalk counseling" strategy of appearing on clinic doorsteps to try to talk women out of undergoing abortions.

Hill married Karen Demuth in May 1978 in West Memphis, Ark. He had met her at Belhaven College during his senior year.

A certified public accountant, she worked to put him through the Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, an independent seminary from which he would earn a master of divinity degree.

While in seminary, Hill joined St. Paul Presbyterian Church. The church`s pastor, the Rev. Michael Schneider, preached at their wedding. Schneider later would move to Trinity Presbyterian Church in Valparaiso and ex-communicate Hill for his extreme views.

Once ordained in the Presbyterian Church in America in March 1984, Hill was sent to pastor two small churches in South Carolina.

In 1989, Hill transferred his credentials to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a small and more conservative branch of Presbyterianism.

He went to South Florida and led an orthodox church in Lake Worth for about nine months. But in May 1992, he asked to be removed from the ministry.

"After seven years of rather unfruitful ministry, I turned from both these denominations because I became convinced that they were inconsistently providing baptism to infants while denying them communion," Hill wrote.

Lack of support

Contacted last week, Schneider said Hill was not a natural-born minister.

He said church elders in Jackson discouraged the aggressive young man, who often fumbled his words, from even entering the ministry.

Hill would not be deterred. But, once a pastor, he struggled because he was unable to compromise his black-and-white views.

"He had difficulties in all of his pastorates, because he was so intense, he couldn`t live with people who didn`t agree with him," Schneider said. "It was very hard for him to be patient with people, to listen to other people`s point of view, to be swayed one way or the other."

Richard Frierson attended Mouzon Presbyterian Church in Kingstree, S.C., where Hill preached from 1984 to 1989.

He said Hill, lacking people skills, stuck to preaching. Karen handled most of the social and outreach aspects of her husband`s ministry.

"She was a wonderful person, I thought - very outgoing and friendly," said Frierson, 56. "I reckon a polite way to put it would be that he was a kind of a private person. You really never knew what he was thinking - what was going on in his mind. He always had that perpetual grin on his face."

Frierson recalls one incident in which Hill`s views trumped his compassion for a grieving family.

"When a guy committed suicide, he said suicide was the most heinous of sins during the funeral," Frierson said. "That might have been when he started leaning over the edge."

In the spotlight

Hill moved to Pensacola in the fall of 1991, Schneider said.

He considered moving to Valparaiso, where Schneider resided, after purchasing an auto- detailing franchise. Then, he decided Pensacola provided a better market.

In the fall of 1992, Hill paid $76,500 cash for a home on Confederate Drive in Pensacola, Escambia County records show.

Hill burst onto the Pensacola abortion scene after the March 10, 1993, fatal shooting of Dr. David Gunn, 47, as Gunn was arriving at Pensacola Medical Services.

Michael Griffin became the first person in the nation to kill an abortion doctor. He is serving a life sentence.

Hill was galvanized by the slaying, rallying to Griffin`s defense and telling every media reporter who would listen that the killing was justifiable homicide.

"Michael Griffin pulled the trigger that set Paul Hill free," said the Rev. Flip Benham, national director of Operation Rescue, an abortion-opposition group that rushed to distance itself from Hill.

From that point on, Hill would not be dissuaded.

Vicki Conroy and her husband, Mike, have been active in Pensacola`s abortion-opposition movement for more than 20 years.

Struck by Hill`s sudden appearance and eagerness to advocate violence, the Conroys and others believed Hill was a plant, either by abortion-rights supporters or Pensacola police.

"I went round and round with Paul Hill," said Vicki Conroy. "It was always the same, always that smile. He had a way of smiling - it was kind of unnerving. He didn`t get rattled. He was very polite, quiet, articulate. He was not obnoxious and rude."

She continued, paraphrasing Scripture:

"Rebuke a wise man, and you`ll grow wiser. But you can`t rebuke a fool. I think Paul Hill is a fool."

Hill`s grin is famous. It infuriates some, who say it smacks of self-satisfaction and condescension. His supporters say it reflects spiritual peace.

Hill`s aggressive courting of the media landed him appearances on the "Phil Donahue Show," "Nightline" and CNN`s "Sonya Live."

`Courage of his convictions`

After moving to Pensacola, Hill`s family commuted to Schneider`s church in Valparaiso on Sundays.

Schneider said Hill had misgivings about his public crusade against abortion and conceded that vanity played a role.

"`I am too absorbed with making a name for myself, and I need to confess and repent for that,` he would say," Schneider said, adding that Hill had a tendency to compare himself to historical figures such as Martin Luther.

In May 1993, Schneider excommunicated Hill because he refused to abandon his public endorsements of violence, contradicting church doctrine.

He appealed and challenged the elders to prove that his position was wrong, Schneider said.

Hill had been studying logic, said the pastor, in his effort to construct the tightest case he could for his cause.

"He wanted to make a reasoned defense as much as possible," Schneider said. "People often ask if he`s off his rocker? I don`t think so. He believes he`s right, has thought everything through and is acting on the courage of his convictions."

On the fringe

After he was excommunicated, Hill began more and more to keep company with a handful of radicals from around the nation who were on the fringe of the abortion- opposition movement, Schneider said.

Hill urged the killing of abortion providers. But no one acted on his incitement.

Abortion-rights supporters

noticed Hill seemed louder and angrier outside the clinics leading up to the killings.

Pensacola police charged Hill in June with disorderly conduct and violation of the city`s noise ordinance.

The Britton-Barrett slayings came a month later.

In the aftermath, Hill was roundly denounced by most abortion opponents. But a few supported him, such as his old friend, C. Roy McMillan of Jackson.

"I admire him for what he did," McMillan said this month. "Paul Hill made the ultimate act of sacrifice: He stopped an aggressor. I think he`s just another casualty in the abortion war."

With Hill on death row, wife Karen and their three children are residing in West Memphis, Ark.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Debbie Buchanan said Karen has visited her husband since Gov. Jeb Bush signed his death warrant July 9. She could not be reached for comment.

From death row, Hill wrote online that he would be comfortable with being separated from his family.

"The separation would be painful, but the reward would be great, too great to fathom. It was simply accepted in faith."

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