Clinic Slaying Suspect Charged Under Federal Law
Sending a message that the government will use its full powers to combat abortion clinic violence, a federal grand jury indicted Paul J. Hill, accused killer of a doctor and his escort in Pensacola, Fla., on federal charges of violating the new federal clinic access law.
Hill, 40, who has contended that killing abortion providers is justifiable homicide, already faces double premeditated murder charges in Florida for the July 29 slayings and could be sentenced to death if he is convicted. If a jury finds him guilty under the Federal Access to Clinic Entrances law, Hill could be sentenced to life without possibility of parole.
Citing a “strong federal interest against violence,” Deval Patrick, assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights, said in announcing the indictment in Pensacola: “The violence must end.”
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said that she was “relieved” by the U.S. action “because at last there will be a major federal investigation into the murders and whether or not there was a conspiracy. It’s extremely important that the federal government take full responsibility for a nationwide investigation into anti-abortion terrorism.”
However, sources familiar with the investigation of a special federal task force into the possibility of a conspiracy in the Pensacola clinic murders said that no evidence has been developed to date that others were involved.
Patrick declined comment on that aspect of the case, noting only that the investigation into the existence of a nationwide conspiracy “is continuing.”
Hill was charged Friday with three counts of violating the federal clinic access law in the slayings of Dr. John B. Britton and his escort, James H. Barrett, and the wounding of Barrett’s wife, June G. Barrett, outside the Ladies Center Clinic in Pensacola. He also was charged with using a firearm--a 12-gauge shotgun--in connection with a crime of violence.
Usually the Justice Department does not pursue federal civil rights charges when there is parallel state action against a suspect and there is no doubt about the vigor and thoroughness of the local investigation.
But Patrick noted: “This indictment should serve notice that the newly enacted clinic access law is a powerful tool that will be used to combat violence aimed at reproductive health services.”
Patrick said Florida “Gov. Lawton Chiles and state officials asked that a federal prosecution be brought against Hill in addition to the state murder charges and we have done so. This demonstrates our mutual resolve to deter this kind of violence.”
The Justice Department announcement brushed aside any double-jeopardy concerns by citing “the legal principle that Hill’s conduct was an offense against both the United States and the people of Florida.”
The charges against Hill are the second criminal case brought under the clinic access law, which President Clinton signed on May 26. In June, six persons in Milwaukee were charged with violating the act. That case is yet to be tried.