On March 10, 1993, gynecologist Dr. David Gunn was murdered outside his clinic in Pensacola, Florida, by anti-abortion zealot Michael F. Griffin, who was described by The New York Times as “a fundamentalist Christian and a loner with a bad temper.”
Griffin originally claimed to be acting on behalf of God; but his attorneys argued at his trial that he had been “brainwashed” by another anti-abortion activist, John Burt. A jury deliberated only three hours before finding Griffin guilty on March 4, 1994.
He was sentenced to life in prison, which he is serving at Okaloosa Correctional Institution in Crestview, Florida. Griffin requested parole but the Florida Commission on Offender Review denied the request in November 2017, ruling that he must remain in prison until at least 2043.
Gunn moved to Brewton, Alabama, after he received his bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University, earned his M.D. at the University of Kentucky, and completed his residency, choosing to provide OB/GYN and abortion services in the rural United States.
“The dedication, skill, and care exhibited by Dr. Gunn was repaid to him on March 10, 1993, when a lone assassin, drunk on the vitriolic rhetoric of spite-filled anti-abortion and church leaders, shot him three times in the back as he tried to enter a clinic in Pensacola, Florida,” wrote the doctor’s son, David Gunn, Jr., in an obituary. “Dr. Gunn was the first, but not the last, casualty in America’s undeclared civil war. For those who do not believe people consider this a war I will simply refer you to the website of The Creator’s Rights Party.”
Gunn was the first of a total of four doctors murdered from March 1993 through May 2009, by killers proclaiming ‘pro-life’ motivation. The other three doctors killed by right-wing extremists during that time were Barnett Slepian, John Britton, and George Tiller.
Gunn’s murder helped lead to the passage of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act.
But Gunn’s death also prompted Paul Jennings Hill, an American minister, to issue the Defensive Action Statement, signed by 30 anti-abortion leaders who sought to justify the murder of doctors to protect “unborn children” from abortion.
Bill Koehler, of 4406 Liberty Avenue in North Bergen, is among the most prominent anti-abortion activists in New Jersey and one of 30 people who signed a “Justifiable Homicide” petition in 1993, defending the murders of doctors who perform abortions.
The only other signatory from New Jersey, Robert Pearson of Ocean Township, died in August 2019. The document signers, “proclaim that whatever force is legitimate to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child.”
On July 29, 1994, Hill approached the Ladies Center, an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida.
As Britton arrived at the clinic on July 29, 1994, Hill approached and fired at him with a twelve-gauge shotgun, hitting him in the head and killing him. Hill later stated that he aimed for Britton’s head because he suspected the doctor was wearing a bulletproof vest.
When he spotted clinic doctor John Britton and his bodyguard outside the clinic, he fired on both of them at close range with a Mossberg Model 500A 12-gauge pump-action shotgun.
Hill killed both Britton and his bodyguard, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, James H. Barrett Jr., plus the deranged anti-abortion extremist wounded Barrett’s wife, June, a retired nurse. Following the shots, Hill laid his shotgun on the ground and waited to be arrested.
The murder resulted in several members of Congress calling for the FBI to infiltrate anti-abortion groups, as it had with the Ku Klux Klan.
Hill was sentenced to death on December 6, 1994, and executed by lethal injection on September 3, 2003. He was the first person in the United States to be executed for murdering a doctor who performed abortions.
On December 6, 1994, Hill was found guilty of the charges and was sentenced to death. The execution warrant for Hill was signed by Governor Jeb Bush in July 2003, and he died by lethal injection in Florida State Prison on September 3, 2003.
On October 23, 1998, Barnett Slepian was shot to death with a high-powered rifle at his home in Amherst, New York. His was the last in a series of similar shootings against providers in Canada and northern New York state which were all likely committed by James Kopp.
Kopp was convicted of Slepian’s murder after being apprehended in France in 2001.
On May 31, 2009, George Tiller was shot and killed by Scott Roeder as the doctor served as an usher at a church in Wichita, Kansas.
His murder was not Tiller’s first time being a victim to anti-abortion violence. Tiller was shot once before in 1993 by Shelley Shannon, who was sentenced 10 years in prison for the shooting.
A number of other compassionate Americans have died in senseless violence perpetrated at women’s health centers, in addition to the four doctors.
On December 30, 1994, two receptionists, Shannon Lowney, 25, and Lee Ann Nichols, 38, were killed in two separate clinic attacks in Brookline, Massachusetts.
John C. Salvi III, was arrested and confessed to the killings. He died in prison and guards found his body under his bed with a plastic garbage bag tied around his head.
The attacks were the worst violence against abortion clinics in U.S. history and capped a decade of assaults on abortion clinics and their staffs across the country. A federal grand jury in Alexandria, Va., probing the violence concluded in January that there was no nationwide conspiracy to commit violence against abortion clinics or their personnel.
Salvi had also confessed to a non-lethal attack in Norfolk, Virginia days before the Brookline killings.
On January 29, 1998, Robert Sanderson, an off-duty police officer who worked as a security guard at an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, was killed when his workplace was bombed.
Eric Rudolph admitted responsibility; he was also charged with three Atlanta bombings: the 1997 bombing of an abortion center, the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing, and another of a lesbian nightclub. The four bombs killed two people and injured hundreds of others.
Rudolph was later found guilty of the crimes and received two life sentences as a result.
After the November 29, 2015, shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, left three dead and several injured, police apprehended Robert L. Dear, a suspect who had previously acted against other clinics and referred to himself as a “warrior for the babies” at his hearing.
Neighbors described Dear as “reclusive” and police from several states where he resided described a history of run-ins dating from at least 1997.
On May 11, 2016, a state court declared Dear incompetent to stand trial following a mental evaluation but in early December 2019, a federal grand jury issued a 68-count indictment against Dear: 65 counts of violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE Act) and three counts of using a firearm to murder.
Dear was taken into custody Monday at the Colorado State Mental Health Institute in Pueblo, Colorado, where he has been detained since a state court declared him mentally incompetent to face trial on state charges in May 2016.
At a plea hearing, Dear, who has admitted to being the shooter, again made several outbursts, again insisted that he was competent to stand trial, and complained about being held “at the nuthouse for four years.”
“Until the United States government starts treating these, instead of treating them as isolated incidents, starts treating them as the conspiracy that they are and starts putting the same resources into these murderers that went into the Olympic bombings, that went into the World Trade Center bombings, we are going to see this continue to happen. Doctors and clinical workers will die,” said Kim Gandy, an American feminist who from 2001 to 2009 was the president of the National Organization for Women (NOW).
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