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Clinic-Shootings Trial Shows Depth of Divide In US Abortion Debate

JOHN SALVI, charged with murdering two women at Boston-area abortion clinics, goes on trial Monday in a case with important symbolic implications for both sides in the volatile abortion dispute.

Already, abortion-rights groups are arguing that a guilty verdict will send a message that those who commit such crimes should be held responsible. They are using the high-profile trial to remind people that violence directed at doctors and others at abortion clinics has not subsided.

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Many anti-abortion activists, meanwhile, are trying to distance themselves from the case. Some say this underscores a growing divide in the movement - between those who condemn violence as a protest tool and those who condone it.

The trial is also being closely watched for its legal tactics. Unlike some cases in the past, Mr. Salvi's lawyers say they will use the insanity defense. They will argue that Salvi, who is charged with murdering two receptionists and wounding five others at two Brookline, Mass., abortion clinics in December 1994, was ''mentally ill'' at the time of the attacks.

This contrasts, for instance, with the strategy used in another high-profile case in Pensacola, Fla., in 1994.

In that trial, Paul Hill, who was eventually convicted of murdering an abortion-clinic doctor and his volunteer bodyguard, represented himself in court and used what is called the ''necessity defense.''

''Paul Hill was an anti-abortion terrorist who killed ... in the belief that he was 'saving unborn children,' '' contends J.W. Carney Jr., one of Salvi's lawyers, who is co-counsel with Janice Bassil. ''There will be absolutely no suggestion at this trial that the tragic deaths of the victims were in any way justified by a political philosophy'' concerning abortion. Rather, the evidence will show that Salvi ''suffered from a major mental illness,'' Mr. Carney says.

Difficulties with insanity defense

But legal experts say the insanity defense is hard to prove and not popular among jurors. Jurors tend to believe that such a defense is used frequently, is highly successful, and puts the defendant back out on the streets quickly. But Carney, who has successfully argued the insanity defense, contends that these are myths.

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''It will be a difficult task for the jury - balancing what is increasingly a disfavored defense against the loss of several lives,'' says Abbe Smith, attorney and deputy director of Harvard Law School's Criminal Justice Institute in Cambridge, Mass.

Salvi has been declared mentally fit to stand trial. But some legal analysts say he may not want to present an insanity defense, despite his lawyers' intentions.

Certainly, he does face daunting odds. In the handful of cases involving shooting deaths by anti-abortion activists to date, all have resulted in convictions - and sentences of life in prison or death.

The venue for the Salvi trial is the suburban Boston town of Dedham, only a few miles from where the clinic attacks took place. This has raised another sensitive issue in the case: jury selection.

Lots of hot buttons for jurors

Legal experts say it will be difficult to find a jury that doesn't feel strongly about this case one way or the other. Carney agrees: ''There are three emotionally charged issues in this case: murder, abortion, and insanity.''

Gordon Oppenheim, head of the public defender office in Norfolk County, says generally the jury pool tends to be white, fairly well-educated, and conservative.

One advantage for both the defense and prosecution, he and others agree, is that TV cameras are banned during the trial.

Abortion-rights groups are hoping for a guilty verdict, especially since a recent Justice Department investigation of a national conspiracy of attacks against abortion clinics proved inconclusive.

''People think that after Salvi, things have calmed down, and things have not calmed down for the individual abortion provider,'' says Priscilla Smith, a staff attorney at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in New York.

''What we have seen,'' she adds, ''is women being more hesitant and more scared about having an abortion.''

While no one was killed last year in clinic shootings, the incidents of other types of violence increased. Bomb threats and stalkings nearly tripled between 1994 and '95, and arsons more than doubled, according to statistics from the National Abortion Federation (NAF) in Washington.

Yet, clinics have seen a dramatic decrease in blockades, which pro-choice groups attribute to the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act passed in June 1994. In 1994, there were 25 incidents compared with five in 1995, according to NAF statistics.

Yet, anti-abortion groups contend that government regulations are the reason for the increase in violence. ''The Draconian laws that they've [the government] applied to pro-lifers have greatly exacerbated the situation,'' says Vernon Kirby of Human Life International in Gaithersburg, Md.

While no one was killed in 1995 in clinic shootings, incidents of other types of violence increased.

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