PUBLISHED THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 4, 2003
Hill supporters, death penalty opponents converge on prison
Media outnumbers all demonstrators
STARKE - Just four minutes before convicted killer Paul Hill was
executed, thunder shook the sky and lightning flashed near the
Florida State Prison.
To some, it was a sign.
"We're about to execute an innocent man, and this is God's
wrath," said Joshua Davis, 45, of Montgomery, Ala., one of about 50
Hill supporters who traveled here to protest Wednesday's execution -
the first of a person convicted of killing an abortion doctor in the
United States. "This is God's judgment to a corrupt nation."
Then Davis joined other Hill supporters on bended knee - all
facing the sprawling, lime-colored prison complex across the street
- and they prayed.
Law enforcement officers and media reporters handily outnumbered
demonstrators who converged upon the prison two hours before the
execution at 6 p.m. Eastern time to voice their views on Hill and
the death penalty.
Hill was convicted and executed for murdering Dr. John Britton,
69, and his escort - retired Air Force Lt. Col. James Barrett, 74 -
outside The Ladies Center in Pensacola on July 29, 1994.
Prison officials erected three holding areas, each marked with
police tape, across the street from the prison to contain three
groups of protesters: Hill supporters in one area, people who
supported the execution in another, and anti-death penalty
demonstrators in the middle.
Despite a few shouting matches between Hill supporters and those
who felt he deserved to be executed, prison officials said there
were no arrests and no real problems.
Hill's supporters far outnumbered the other two camps. About 20
anti-death penalty demonstrators - many of them affiliated with
Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty - held signs
condemning what they called "state-sanctioned murder." Only four men
stood in the holding area urging the state to get on with the
"Paul Hill is not above the law," said Ruben Israel, 42, of Los
Angeles. "And soon he will know what it means to face the wrath of
Nearby, the death penalty opponents joined hands and bowed their
heads in the moments before the execution.
"I don't care if he's guilty or innocent," said Janice French,
24, of Gainesville. "The government shouldn't be able to murder its
In the area holding Hill's supporters, many rested their signs
and knelt in the rain-dampened grass to pray. Some recited the
Lord's Prayer, while others prayed a stream of "Hail Marys" as the
seconds counted down.
At 6 p.m., Hill supporters released 50 gold balloons into the
gray skies to signify his passing.
Some broke into hymns.
A loud voice shouted from the center: "Father, help us, Lord. We
are undone. We are undone."
Moments later, Drew Heiss, 41, from Milwaukee, played taps on a
"Paul Hill gave his life for the unborn babies," Heiss said. "We
have lost a great man, but he's with God now."
Michael Bray, a Maryland pastor and longtime Hill supporter, felt
little joy, even though he had "no doubt Hill was in a better
"It's a surreal situation," Bray said, "because a friend has just
Behind Bray, leaning against the yellow police tape that roped
off each of the holding areas, a sign showed a smiling Paul Hill
crucified on the cross.
Heiss looked at the picture and smiled as well.
"That's what they did to him all right," Heiss said. "He was a
rare man. I think if someone did that (killed an abortion provider)
again, he would be justified. But I don't think - well, let's just
say I think it's a rare calling. It's not for everyone. We don't see
as many courageous people as Paul Hill."
Many death penalty foes fear Hill's execution will prompt more
"We just made a martyr out of Paul Hill," said George Barrow, 36,
of Ocala. "I think the anti- abortion fanatics - not just the
regular people who oppose abortion, but the fanatics - will see him
as a hero and try to emulate him."
People from all three sides stayed in the holding areas for about
15 minutes after the execution before mingling back to their
But David Miller, 43, of Beverly Hills, Fla., who supported the
execution, ventured into the area of Hill supporters, calling them
"hypocrites who support murder."
A few Hill supporters debated with him momentarily before
marching off. But not all walked away. John Brockhoeft, 52, a
Kentucky abortion opponent, stood face to face with Miller, calling
him a "blasphemer who was perverting the word of God."
Brockhoeft was convicted in 1988 after driving to Pensacola with
a carload of bomb parts that he intended to use to blow up The
Ladies Center. After also being convicted of the 1985 firebombing of
an abortion clinic in Cincinnati, he served two separate prison
terms totaling more than six years. He was released from prison in
"I love these babies just like Paul Hill did," Brockhoeft said
after walking away from Miller. "They're worthy of being defended,
and I'll do everything I can to defend them."
A girl, whom he identified as his daughter, tugged at his arm as
he tried to engage Miller in debate once more.
"Let's go home," the girl said. "Let's just go."
They walked back toward their cars under the watchful eye of the
dozens of law enforcement officials standing near the demonstration
Uniformed officers checked the identification of everyone allowed
into the site, and some were subjected to random vehicle searches
with bomb-sniffing dogs.
Hours earlier, the driver of a red pickup - with a canopy in back
covered with a variety of anti- abortion signs, flags and slogans -
tried to enter the prison grounds before being turned away. The
driver did not enter the protest area but spent most of the
afternoon driving back and forth on Raiford Road, which separated
the prison from the protest and media areas.
"I saw all those people opposing the execution, and I went into
that area," said Hannah Floyd of Starke, an anti-death penalty
activist, as she watched the truck drive by once more. "But then I
saw all the signs with the aborted babies, and it was just
disgusting. I knew I was in the wrong place."
Floyd said she is one of the few Starke residents who regularly
ventures out to observe the activity surrounding executions. She
said most of the people in the town, just nine miles from the
prison, try not to get involved with the politics of the death
penalty, because so many Starke residents work there.
She was surprised that no one in either camp identified
themselves as being from Northwest Florida.
"You'd think there would be a couple," she said, "since that's
where this whole thing began."