Monday, September 03, 2007

September 3

Three years ago today, Paul Jennings Hill sat down to a hearty meal of steak with Hollandaise sauce, baked potato, broccoli, salad, and a jug of sweetened iced tea. For dessert -- which he ate minutes before the state of Florida executed him by lethal injection -- Hill enjoyed a frosty bowl of orange sherbet.

By the accounts of his supporters, the condemned would have found his last meal especially satisfying. Far from dreading his encounter with what Justice Harry Blackmun famously called “the machinery of death,” Paul Jennings Hill expected that his execution would lead him onward toward a fantastic “reward” in Heaven. Hill’s martyrdom, his unhinged mind told him, was earned for turning a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun on John Britton -- a Pensacola doctor who offered abortion services -- and his guard, James Barrett, in the parking lot of the Ladies Center on 29 July 1994. Britton, struck with four close-range blasts to the face and upper chest, was the second doctor to be shot at the clinic by assassins who believed themselves to be on a holy mission to protect the unborn. In March of the previous year, Michael Griffin emptied a .38 caliber handgun into the back of Dr. David Gunn.

Less than a week after the shooting, the previously unknown Paul Jennings Hill appeared on Donahue to defend Griffin, his mouth expelling plume of righteous froth as he casually likened Dr. Gunn to Josef Mengele. The following month, Hill appeared on Nightline to endorse the good works of Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon, a serial arsonist and housewife who shot and wounded Dr. George Tiller at a clinic in Wichita, Kansas. A little over a year later, this self-described “slow learner” had followed up his words with deeds, affirming his own place in the hierarchy of violent zealots by receiving the first death sentence in American history handed down for the murder of an abortion provider.

Rev. Don Spitz of the Army of God -- a group that promotes to use of violence to thwart abortion -- befriended Hill during his years in prison. “He's totally ready," Spitz observed a week before the execution. “He's 100 percent willing. He's ready to give his life for the babies." On September 3, Spitz watched Hill die and later recorded the following stream of neo-medieval superstition:
Around 5:45 PM a large rainbow appeared over Florida State Prison, then around 6 PM a great storm arose and the sky turned black. I remarked to Paul's lawyer that this is like when Jesus was crucified. While I was in the observation room, the lights flickered a couple of times; this happened right before Paul spoke his 'last words'. I wondered if I would be sitting in the dark and started thinking whether the prison had back up generators; and if so, would they go ahead with the execution. From reports outside, both from media and Paul's friends, some long bolts of lightning happened around 6 PM, so close that smell from it was obvious. Another appeared to hit close to the prison itself. A few minutes after 6, the storm ended as suddenly as it started and then began a gentle rain. I personally do not think this was coincidence.
Precisely two years later, in what Spitz no doubt regarded as yet another moment of non-coincidence, Chief Justice William Rehnquist succumbed to thyroid cancer. Rehnquist -- who cast one of two dissenting votes in Roe -- was regarded by Spitz and other radicals as insufficiently supportive of their project. Most notoriously, Rehnquist voted with the majority in several cases in 1996 and 1997 that upheld “buffer zones” around family planning clinics, zones designed in part to prevent the kinds of attacks advised by the Army of God. Rehnquist’s death, to Spitz’ delight, cleared a path on the high court for the nomination of Samuel Alito.

This is a re-post of last year's entry

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