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Hill supporters, death penalty opponents converge on prison

Media outnumbers all demonstrators

Troy Moon

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 execution.

"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 God."

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 citizens."

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 cried.

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 trumpet.

"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 place."

"It's a surreal situation," Bray said, "because a friend has just been killed."

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 killings.

"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 cars.

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 1995.

"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 areas.

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."

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