Jury selection in Gosnell abortion clinic case scheduled to start Monday

Kermit Gosnell could face the death penalty if convicted.
Kermit Gosnell could face the death penalty if convicted.
Posted: March 05, 2013

Shortly after 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 18, 2010, a federal-state task force raided a rambling three-story building in West Philadelphia suspected as the source of prescription narcotics flooding the streets.

The agents who went into the Women's Medical Society at 3801 Lancaster Ave. found what they were looking for - and much more.

Inside were boxes of medical waste, preserved fetuses, infant feet in specimen jars, and filthy medical equipment - what prosecutors allege was evidence of Kermit Gosnell's booming abortion clinic, where late-term pregnancies were illegally and murderously ended.

On Monday, the search begins for a Philadelphia jury that prosecutors will ask to find the 72-year-old Gosnell guilty of first-degree murder and sentence him to death for allegedly killing seven infants born alive and viable after their mothers had abortions.

Little is known about how Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart, prosecutors Edward Cameron and Joanne Pescatore, and defense attorneys Jack McMahon and James Berardinelli will proceed when they meet in the large third-floor courtroom at the city's Criminal Justice Center.

The lawyers and principals are under a gag order to try to minimize pretrial publicity that could taint prospective jurors.

The allegations against Gosnell are outlined in horrific detail in the 281-page report of a county investigating grand jury released in January 2011.

A "baby charnel house" was how the grand jury report described Gosnell's clinic, a squalid facility that catered to poor women who had cash and wanted abortions.

Inside, the grand jury alleged, a Virginia woman was killed in 2009 when Gosnell's untrained staff administered too much anesthesia during an abortion. Gosnell is charged with third-degree murder in the death of 41-year-old Karnamaya Mongar.

But Gosnell faces a possible death sentence if the jury finds him guilty of first-degree murder in the deaths of seven infants over the last decade he allegedly killed by "snipping" their spines with surgical scissors.

Nine of Gosnell's clinic employees - including his wife, Pearl Gosnell, 52 - were charged with him involving its operation.

All but one of the employees have already pleaded guilty to a variety of charges, including conspiracy and participating in a corrupt organization.

Kermit Gosnell could choose to plead guilty to escape the death penalty, and prosecutors on Thursday offered a plea deal. It's not known whether Gosnell was considering the offer or had already rejected it.

The only one who will face trial Monday - with or without Kermit Gosnell - is Eileen O'Neill, 56, of Phoenixville.

A medical school graduate, O'Neill is charged with working as a doctor at Gosnell's clinic though she never obtained a medical license. Berardinelli, her attorney, says she will go to trial.

Prosecutors have estimated Gosnell's trial will take eight to 10 weeks. But first, the judge and lawyers must select a jury of 12 plus a group of alternate jurors.

No one is willing to predict how long jury selection might take. Gosnell's case has received international news coverage, easily as much as last year's trial involving the sexual abuse of children by priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

But the Gosnell trial will also mean finding a group of jurors who say they are willing to consider death by lethal injection if they find the doctor guilty of first-degree murder.

Prospective jurors could have some interesting moral parsing to do. Though Gosnell's alleged crimes occurred during illegal late-term abortions, the legality of abortion per se is not an issue in the trial. Still, what will lawyers make of prospective jurors who oppose abortion (presumably good for the prosecution) but who also oppose capital punishment (good for the defense)?

The trial is certain to be closely watched by those on both sides of the abortion issue.

Abortion opponents have argued that the case shows the true face of abortion: late-term pregnancies where viable fetuses, 30 weeks or older, were allegedly killed after being born alive.

Those who argue for the availability of legal abortion have contended that opponents are trying to use a criminal "worst case" scenario as ammunition in an effort to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

Both sides have joined the county grand jury report in lambasting Pennsylvania health officials for ignoring decades of complaints about Gosnell. The grand jury report said state officials wanted to avoid a controversial political issue and turned a blind eye to Gosnell because his practice largely affected poor, inner-city African American women.

Indeed, a month after the 2011 grand jury report was released, the Corbett administration fired four state lawyers and two supervisors at the state Departments of Health and State for failing to ensure inspection of state abortion providers for more than a decade.

Corbett called state workers' failure to conduct the required annual inspections "despicable."

The state also passed Act 122, a law regulating all free-standing abortion clinics as outpatient surgical centers. Providers said the new law forced them to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars making improvements to heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, and other nonmedical systems.

The new regulations reduced the number of Pennsylvania abortion providers from 22 to 17 and reduced to 13 the number of providers approved to perform surgical abortions requiring anesthesia. Some physicians who perform abortions at clinics moved their practices to hospitals.


Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985, jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or follow @joeslobo on Twitter.

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