FEBRUARY 28, 1994 PAGE 34


Abortion: A novel defense in a Florida murder trial

Last March, minutes after Dr David Gunn was fatally shot at the Florida clinic where he performed abortions, police arrested a protester named Michael Griffin and charged him with the murder.

With his trial set to begin this week, Griffin is now advancing the latest don't-blame-me defense: he claims that anti-abortion propaganda drove him to it. Shooting Gunn "was the action of a good, decent human being who had been fed poison," Griffin's lawyer, William Eddins, said in court. Eddins claims that activist friends convinced his client that violence against abortion clinics was "Biblically supported," and that such delusions may have spurred him to "martyrdom."

Circuit Judge John Parnham refused to bar as evidence some of the propaganda Griffin had seen - including graphic videos of aborted fetuses and a handbill calling for Dr. Gunn to be stopped.

Such material is standard fare in the anti-abortion underground - a world in which newsletter writers ponder whether it would have been better to stone Gunn to death.

Some activists, like John Burt, whom Griffin names as his chief guide to anti-abortion doctrine, say they draw the line at homicide: "I can't picture Jesus Christ walking in anywhere with a .45 and blowing people away." But others, like former minister Paul Hill, calls murder "defensive action" if it saves unborn lives.

Lately, the newsletters have been cheering other examples of Biblically correct violence. The Capitol Area Christian News recently congratulated a 19-year-old charged with destroying a clinic, and commended a Denver man arrested for an acid attack. Another newsletter called on the faithful to pray for divine destruction of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Des Moines, Iowa, "in a manner which no one can mistake for human torching."

Pro-choice groups say that Gunn's murder marked a dangerous new phase in the abortion wars. According to the National Abortion Federation, which represents providers, death threats at clinics jumped from 8 in 1992 to 78 last year; incidents of hate mail and harassing phone calls rose from 469 to 628; bomb threats nearly doubled, from12 to 22.

Last August an abortion doctor in Wichita, Kan., George Tiller, was shot and wounded as he was leaving his clinic.

Some attribute the upsurge in violence to the election of pro-choice President Bill Clinton. Opponents "haven't won in the political system, so they're apparently determined to bomb, shoot, stalk and murder their way to their goal," says James Wagoner of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. (Other countries are witnessing extreme tactics, too: in Norway last week, abortion foes hinted they had stolen Edward Munch's painting -"The Scream" and would return it if the anti-abortion film "The Silent Scream" was shown on Norwegian television.)

Clinton has asked the FBI to investigate anti-abortion violence, after jurisdiction was ceded to local authorities during the Reagan-Bush years. Attorney General Janet Reno has made abortion vioIence a federal priority - and pro-choice groups were heartened by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month that they can use RICO, a federal anti-racketeering statute, in civil suits against abortion protesters. Mainstream pro-life groups, meanwhile, which have long disavowed the actions of the violent minority, question if the FBI is needed. "If violent activities are being adequately prosecuted by state law why add federal law to that equation?" asks Helen Alvar'e of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Surveillance tips: Whether the exhortations of extremists constitute free speech or something more sinister depends on numbingly complex federal statutes. The same names do keep cropping up in the newsletter underground - including Rachelle (Shelley) Shannon, of Grants Pass, Ore., who is charged with shooting Dr. Tiller in Wichita. Earlier, Shannon had typed and circulated a newsletter written by John Brockhoeft from his cell in Ashland, Ky., where he is serving time for firebombing a Cincinnati abortion clinic. In the latest edition Brockhoeft describes how he covertly monitored clinics, and offers tips to other would-be stalkers: don't wear boots with recognizable soles, or, if you do, whisk over the soil with a branch to cover your tracks.

Jack Killorin, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which has monitored clinic bombings and arson for years, says that his agency has not found evidence of a nationwide conspiracy; "If [the letters] say, 'All sinners must burn,' I think we'd have a tough time proving that's conspiratorial. But if I threaten to kill you and send it in the mail, that's a crime."

Evidence like the handbill singling out Gunn would seem to test that distinction. But Griffin is being tried on state murder charges, not as part of a federal conspiracy. And regardless of the verdict, the proponents of violence may claim him as a hero. They can already claim a partial victory: in the face of such scare tactics in recent years, the number of U.S. doctors willing to perform abortions has continued its steady decline.

MELINDA BECK with PETER KATEL in Pensacola and

PETER ANNIN in Chicago