Judge orders abortion doctor to get a lawyer

Posted: February 05, 2011

Rejecting the claim that he was "close to destitute," a Philadelphia judge ordered abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell to get a lawyer by Wednesday and warned that the physician could face the death penalty on charges of killing a patient and seven newborn infants at his West Philadelphia clinic.

The stark warning from Common Pleas Court Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes at a hearing Friday did not appear to surprise Gosnell or dampen his amiable, courtly demeanor.

Hughes called the hearing to learn why neither Gosnell, 69, nor his wife, Pearl, 50, had hired lawyers.

The need was critical, Hughes told the couple, reminding them of the hearing Wednesday on a prosecution motion to expedite the case by not conducting preliminary hearings.

Hughes added that prosecutors have until March 2 to decide whether to seek the death penalty in the doctor's case.

The Gosnells and eight employees of the clinic were charged after the Jan. 19 release of the report of a 10-month county grand jury probe that alleged their Women's Medical Society clinic at 3801 Lancaster Ave. performed illegal late-term abortions for poor women, in some cases killing infants born live and viable.

But the substance of the charges was secondary at Friday's hearing. Hughes spent most of the 45-minute proceeding verbally sparring with Gosnell about why he could not be represented by a public defender.

"You're not eligible," Hughes told Gosnell after Assistant District Attorneys Joanne Pescatore and Christine Wechsler said public records showed the Gosnells jointly or individually own a total of 17 properties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Texas, as well as a boat.

"I asked for a public defender, but I'm not eligible because I have assets?" Gosnell asked.

Hughes then asked the prosecutors to read the list of properties to Gosnell.

The Gosnells are in prison. He was denied bail; she is held in lieu of $1 million bail.

Gosnell, tall with ramrod-straight posture, wore a pale-green dress shirt and jeans, acting as though he had come in from vacation and not the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.

"It's nice to meet you, your honor, although I'm not sure you feel it's nice because of the conditions that you found," Gosnell said, introducing himself.

Gosnell then turned to scan the courtroom and spotted CBS3 news reporter Walt Hunter in the audience.

"Hi, Walt," Gosnell said, smiling and waving.

"This is not a social event," Hughes interrupted. "You need to focus. You don't get to speak to people you know."

Gosnell and his wife contested the list of properties prosecutors said they own. Hughes, however, noted that even omitting the ones the Gosnells challenged, they still owned a half-dozen properties between them.

Gosnell then said he wanted the judge to understand his priorities: raising money to get his wife out of prison and providing for his 13-year-old daughter.

"No, your priority is to get a lawyer," Hughes replied.

Hughes said Gosnell's wife owned property in her own name and could bail herself out of jail.

As for the couple's daughter, Hughes noted that Gosnell has five adult children - two of whom are professionals - who can care for their sister.

"My children have all done very well," Gosnell acknowledged, "but one is in Switzerland."

The judge sounded exasperated: "I cannot walk through the streets of Philadelphia without bumping into somebody who knows you. These are merely excuses and of no moment to me."

At that, Gosnell conceded that his daughter was being "well cared for" by neighbors.

None of the Gosnell children was in court.

After Gosnell left court to return to prison, Pearl Gosnell was brought in, a marked contrast to her garrulous husband.

Dressed in a black top and jeans, Pearl Gosnell seemed on the verge of tears. She initially said she could not afford a lawyer, but went silent after Hughes cited her real estate holdings.

"You are not eligible. You must hire an attorney," Hughes said, stressing each word.

Last February, federal drug agents and state authorities raided Gosnell's West Philadelphia clinic, investigating allegations that he was illegally writing prescriptions for controlled pharmaceuticals. Instead, agents found unsanitary conditions, including bags and bottles of aborted fetuses and body parts, alleged evidence of illegal late-term abortions.

Pescatore and Wechsler said they did not know what might be done if the Gosnells appeared Wednesday without lawyers.

The Gosnells' cases could be severed from those of the other defendants, but doing so would present prosecutors and the judge with some thorny legal issues.

Defense attorneys who agree to bypass a preliminary hearing get "discovery" - documents and other evidence supporting the grand jury's 260-page report.

If the Gosnells do not join the other defense attorneys in the bypass motion, Hughes would have to devise a way to ensure that the other lawyers or their clients did not share discovery information with them.


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

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