Gosnell guilty of three murder counts

Dr. Kermit Gosnell gets escorted to a van leaving the Criminal Justice Center after getting convicted on three counts of first degree murder on Monday, May 13, 2013. ( Yong Kim / Staff Photographer )
Dr. Kermit Gosnell gets escorted to a van leaving the Criminal Justice Center after getting convicted on three counts of first degree murder on Monday, May 13, 2013. ( Yong Kim / Staff Photographer ) (Daily News/Inquirer)
Posted: May 15, 2013

For more than three decades, Kermit Barron Gosnell made his name providing abortions in the most difficult cases - the poor, the uninsured, and women pushing the 24-week threshold when abortion becomes illegal in Pennsylvania.

Now the 72-year-old West Philadelphia physician has to save a life - his own - after a Common Pleas Court jury found him guilty Monday of killing three babies born alive during illegal late-term abortions.

Gosnell appeared as placidly enigmatic as ever as the jury of seven women and five men came into court at 2:50 p.m., the ninth full day of deliberations, and said he was guilty of three counts of first-degree murder.

The jury's verdict was announced by Juror No. 5, as he was called in court, a thin young man who began jury service shortly after selection began March 4 wearing a fashionable stubble and announced the verdict with a thick black beard.

The large third-floor courtroom was packed with reporters from local and national media who were locked in and threatened with contempt of court and seizure of cellphones if they tried to communicate the verdict before the reading was finished.

The only obvious show of emotion as the verdict was read was by Christine Wechsler, 36, a former city prosecutor who with Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore handled the Gosnell case from 2010 through trial.

Wechsler, who began crying at the verdict, is the mother of four young children. She left the District Attorney's Office several weeks before the trial began for a job in the cabinet of Gov. Corbett.

Wechsler declined comment after the verdict.

In Pennsylvania, first-degree murder - the premeditated, malicious killing of a person - is punishable by death by lethal injection or life in prison without chance of parole.

Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart set next Tuesday for the start of the death-penalty hearing for Gosnell.

The same jury that found Gosnell guilty will hear mitigating evidence from defense attorney Jack McMahon to try to persuade the jury to sentence the septuagenarian to live what is left of his life in prison.

Although limited by a gag order from commenting on the case, McMahon told reporters outside the city's Criminal Justice Center that Gosnell was "disappointed" and "upset" by the verdict.

"Obviously, the jury has spoken. The prosecution should be commended," McMahon said.

He said he did not know if he would have Gosnell testify during the penalty-phase hearing. Gosnell did not testify at trial and presented no other witnesses.

As throughout the trial, no one from Gosnell's family was in court when the verdict was announced.

Although the evidence prosecutors arrayed against Gosnell was grim, often gruesome and compelling, McMahon may well seek out others who were helped by Gosnell during the 31 years he operated the Women's Medical Society at 3801 Lancaster Ave.

The trial was closely monitored by antiabortion groups, some of which made it part of their campaign to challenge the legality of abortion.

Gosnell began his career during the 1960s' "war on poverty," helping found an urban medical clinic and a drug halfway house in Mantua.

Even in the years before the 2010 drug raid that closed his clinic and led to his arrest, Gosnell's family practice was known for never turning away patients regardless of their ability to pay.

Assistant District Attorneys Edward Cameron and Pescatore will present what are known as aggravating factors that they will argue warrant a death sentence.

Those factors will likely include evidence that Gosnell flouted abortion laws to maximize profits - almost $240,000 in cash was found secreted in his house - regardless of the age of the fetus or the health of the mother.

The jury's verdict appeared to show the same methodical seriousness that took jurors through about 57 hours of deliberations since getting the case April 30.

The jury, for example, acquitted Gosnell in the death of Baby E, the fourth first-degree murder verdict he faced.

The jury also returned the lesser verdict of involuntary manslaughter - instead of the third-degree murder that prosecutors urged - in the 2009 death of an abortion patient, Karnamaya Mongar, 41, of Virginia, who the jury determined was overdosed on Demerol by Gosnell's untrained staff.

And the jury acquitted Gosnell of 17 of 227 counts of violating the 24-hour waiting period before performing an abortion and three of 24 counts of performing abortions on women more than 24 weeks pregnant.

The jury found Gosnell codefendant Eileen O'Neill, 56, of Phoenixville, guilty of two counts of theft by deception and two counts of conspiracy involving her work as an unlicensed doctor in the family practice of Gosnell's clinic.

Minehart let O'Neill remain free on $30,000 bail pending sentencing July 15.

O'Neill left the courthouse with a jacket covering her face as she ran a gantlet of reporters and photographers. "You know I have a gag order," O'Neill said.

Day Gardner, president of the National Black Pro-Life Union in Washington, said she was thrilled to learn Gosnell had been held accountable "for the children he maliciously and brutally killed."

Gardner, who attended trial often during the six weeks of testimony, said: "He has caused so much mayhem in Philadelphia for so long. We have no idea how many children he's killed and how many women he has harmed over the last 30 years."

For Gosnell, the journey leading to the verdict began about 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 18, 2010. After working that day at an abortion clinic in Wilmington, Gosnell returned to West Philadelphia to begin a series of abortions that typically took him and his staff into the early morning.

Both arms full with bags containing his dinner and fresh clams for his pet turtles, Gosnell was cradling a cellphone on his shoulder, talking to his wife, when he was accosted by agents from a federal-state task force with a search warrant for the clinic.

The agents were investigating the sale of prescriptions for oxycodone and other addictive narcotic medicines and they suspected the scripts were coming from Women's Medical Society.

Agents testified at trial that they picked the evening for their raid because they wanted to avoid patients during their search. Instead, as Gosnell calmly led them into the rambling three-story brick building, the agents encountered Gosnell's staff and a half-dozen women sedated and in advanced labor waiting for Gosnell to perform abortions.

But as they searched for evidence in the drug investigation, agents found other, more shocking evidence: unsanitary conditions including blood and body fluids on the floor and furniture; the odor of a pet store permeating the building from Gosnell's cat, fish, and turtles; and the remains of aborted fetuses and fetal body parts stored around the clinic.

Within a week, state health officials had suspended Gosnell's medical license and three months later moved to permanently close the 30-year-old clinic. The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office launched its own grand jury investigation of whether babies born alive were killed in the clinic and whether Gosnell violated the state's Abortion Control Act.

In January 2011, the District Attorney's Office announced charges against Gosnell alleging that he regularly performed illegal late-term abortions and used scissors to snip the spines of babies born alive. Nine untrained clinic employees - many who administered medicine, did ultrasound exams, and assisted in abortions - were also charged, including Gosnell's wife, Pearl, 52.

In addition to recommending criminal charges, the voluminous grand jury report excoriated state health inspectors for not visiting Gosnell's clinic for more than a decade and not responding to complaints that Gosnell was performing illegal abortions on women over the 24-week limit in state law.

No state employees were criminally charged, but a month later the Corbett administration fired four state lawyers and two supervisors at the state Departments of Health and State for failing to ensure the inspection of state abortion providers. Gov. Corbett called the state workers' failure to conduct the required annual inspections "despicable."

By the time the case against Gosnell went to trial in March, all but Gosnell and O'Neill had pleaded guilty and most had agreed to testify against Gosnell.

As for the federal drug probe that started it all, in December 2011, a federal grand jury and federal prosecutors charged Gosnell and seven workers - including four who were charged in the abortion case.

All but Gosnell have pleaded guilty to the federal drug charges. Gosnell is scheduled for jury trial Sept. 9 before U.S. District Cynthia M. Rufe.


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

Inquirer staff writers Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman, Mike Newall, and Melissa Dribben contributed to this article.

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