Judge wants to know why Gosnells don't have a lawyer

Kermit Gosnell faces eight counts of murder.
Kermit Gosnell faces eight counts of murder.
Posted: February 04, 2011

Kermit Gosnell had a West Philadelphia medical practice that purportedly made him a millionaire, sent his six children to private schools, and funded such creature comforts as a beach house at the Jersey Shore.

So now that he is in prison - charged with running an abortion clinic in which one patient and seven infants allegedly were murdered - why doesn't he have a lawyer?

That is what Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes wants to know, and why she is summoning Gosnell, 69, and his wife and codefendant, Pearl, 50, to the city's Criminal Justice Center from prison Friday.

It is not an idle question.

On Wednesday, the Gosnells and eight of his former clinic employees - all charged after the Jan. 19 release of a 260-page report from a Philadelphia grand jury - are due in court on a motion by the District Attorney's Office to bypass a preliminary hearing and expedite the case to trial.

William J. Brennan, a well-known Center City criminal-defense lawyer, represented Gosnell during the 10 months the doctor and his clinic were subjects of the grand-jury investigation.

However, Brennan said earlier this week that Gosnell hired him to handle only issues related to the grand-jury probe. He said that when he was retained, he believed authorities were looking into allegations that Gosnell was running a "pill mill" - providing prescriptions for controlled drugs - and not a clinic allegedly specializing in late-term and illegal abortions.

Last February, federal drug agents and state authorities raided Gosnell's clinic at 3801 Lancaster Ave. in the drug probe. They found instead unsanitary conditions that included bags and bottles of aborted fetuses and body parts, indicating illegal abortions had been performed there.

Brennan affirmed that he would not represent Gosnell at trial and said he did not know whether Gosnell had found a lawyer.

Gosnell is being held without bail; his wife is being held after failing to post $1 million bail. The judge wants to determine whether they have found another lawyer; are having trouble getting a lawyer to take on what will surely be a protracted, costly, high-profile case; or cannot afford one.

"I think it's going to be very hard to argue that [Gosnell] needs to have an appointed attorney," said Assistant District Attorney Christine Wechsler, who with prosecutor Joanne Pescatore is handling the case.

But as of earlier this week, Wechsler said, her office had to personally serve the Gosnells copies of their hearing motion in prison because neither had a lawyer.

It could be a thorny question for the judge. Allowing the Gosnells more time to find attorneys could cause delays or other problems impinging on the rights of their eight former employees. Appointing counsel is not possible unless an investigation verifies that the Gosnells are indigent.

Even if the Gosnells wanted to defend themselves, Hughes would likely make sure they had "backup counsel" - a lawyer to offer guidance through the thicket of court procedure and rules of evidence.

Lawyers say the prosecution motion to bypass preliminary hearings for the Gosnell defendants is not unusual when charges are lodged after a voluminous grand-jury report.

Although the preliminary hearing is normally a defense lawyer's first look at the witnesses or evidence against a client, that evidence is already outlined in the grand jury's report.

More important, if the judge were to grant the prosecution bypass motion, defense attorneys would immediately get what is known as "discovery" - the underlying documents and evidence they will need to mount a trial defense.

Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.