Abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell convicted of murder in deaths of three infants
Video: A Philadelphia doctor accused of performing illegal late-term abortions in a filthy clinic has been found guilty of first-degree murder in the deaths of three babies born alive but was acquitted in the death of a fourth baby.
By Brady Dennis, Published: May 13 E-mail the writer
PHILADELPHIA — After a two-month trial and 10 days of deliberation, a jury on Monday decided that Baby A, Baby C and Baby D lived a few fleeting moments outside their mothers’ wombs before their spinal cords were severed at Kermit Gosnell’s abortion clinic in West Philadelphia.
The way those brief lives ended didn’t amount to abortion but to three acts of first-degree murder, jurors concluded.
Gosnell, in a dark suit and a maroon shirt, furrowed his brow and shook his head slightly but remained stoic when the verdicts were read in a packed Philadelphia courtroom just before 3 p.m. One juror appeared to cry. Prosecutors smiled in relief and later hugged colleagues.
Jurors acquitted Gosnell of third-degree murder but found him guilty on a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter in the 2009 death of 41-year-old Karnamaya Mongar of Virginia, who died from a drug overdose while undergoing an abortion at his clinic.
The jury also acquitted him of murder in the death of another infant, known as Baby E, whom prosecutors had struggled to prove was alive after delivery. Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart previously dismissed three additional first-degree murder charges against Gosnell, each involving other infants.
The trial will move next week into a sentencing phase, when the jurors will be called back to decide whether Gosnell, 72, should receive the death penalty or life in prison. Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty, and the multiple murder convictions are likely to bolster their argument.
Neither prosecutors nor jurors were available for comment after the verdict because a judicial gag order remains in place until the penalty phase ends. Defense attorney Jack McMahon talked briefly with reporters about Monday’s outcome.
“A jury has spoken, and we respect that verdict. . . . That’s our system,” McMahon said, noting that Gosnell was convicted on only three of the original eight murder charges. “The jury worked very, very, very hard. They should be commended.”
Still, McMahon argued that the media had been “overwhelmingly against” Gosnell throughout the trial, and he likened the defense’s case to “salmon swimming upstream.”
He said Gosnell said little to him as the verdicts came in Monday, other than to thank him for putting on an aggressive defense. “How do you prepare anybody for that?” McMahon said, adding: “It’s a very difficult case. There’s a lot of emotion.”
The case, which has unfolded since early March inside Courtroom 304 here, has garnered national attention and inflamed passions on all sides of the abortion divide.
Antiabortion activists have seized on the macabre details — from Gosnell’s practice of “snipping” the spinal cords of fetuses to the dismembered remains that investigators discovered in milk jugs and glass jars inside his Women’s Medical Society clinic — as a wake-up call about the potential for wider abuse in abortion facilities and the need for stricter oversight.
Antiabortion groups and politicians said Monday that the case underscored what they see as the brutality inherent in abortion procedures.
“Some abortionists may have cleaner sheets than Gosnell, and better sterilized equipment and better trained accomplices, but what they do — what Gosnell did — kill babies and hurt women — is the same,” Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) said in a statement.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said he was “praying for the lives taken by Kermit Gosnell,” and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus tweeted that “the Gosnell ordeal shouldn’t slip quietly from our conscience.”
Meanwhile, abortion rights groups have insisted that Gosnell’s crimes are an anomaly and that the abysmal conditions inside his clinic persisted only because numerous regulators ignored red flags for years.
Such groups also were quick to praise Monday’s conviction, but they warned that restrictive measures being proposed by lawmakers in some states risk driving women to less-reputable abortion providers and cutting off funding to help low-income women afford the procedures.
“We must reject misguided laws that would limit women’s options and force them to seek treatment from criminals like Kermit Gosnell,” Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement.
Despite the tidal wave of outrage surrounding the trial — and complaints about the initial lack of national media coverage — Monday’s outcome seems unlikely to shift the public’s deeply ingrained positions on abortion.
Views of abortion have remained steady for years, and a recent Gallup poll showed that the Gosnell trial has not altered them. About a quarter of Americans said abortion should be legal in all circumstances, according to a poll conducted at the height of the trial. Twenty percent said it should always be illegal, and just over half said it should be legal in some circumstances.
In the same poll, a quarter of Americans said they had followed the story closely, but 54 percent said they hadn’t followed it at all, making it “one of the least followed news stories Gallup has measured,” according to the firm.
Whatever Gosnell has come to symbolize in the politically fraught national abortion debate, the case that played out in Courtroom 304 detailed the human suffering inside his clinic, which prosecutors called a “house of horrors.”
It included gruesome photos and graphic descriptions from former employees of Gosnell’s “snipping” technique, which he allegedly used frequently on babies born at the clinic to mothers who had been pumped full of drugs to induce labor.
Prosecutors called dozens of witnesses who painted a picture of a filthy facility where untrained, unqualified workers routinely administered anesthesia and other drugs; where furniture and blankets were stained with blood and the rooms reeked of cat urine; where the use of unsterilized instruments spread venereal disease to patients; where abortions were regularly performed after the state’s 24-week legal limit; and where drugged women often went into labor early, sometimes giving birth in the bathroom.
Eight other former clinic employees, including Gosnell’s wife, previously pleaded guilty to various charges, including perjury and third-degree murder.
Inside the courtroom, jurors faced a difficult legal quandary: To find Gosnell guilty of murdering the babies, they first had to agree that the babies had been alive outside their mothers’ wombs. The scientific evidence on that question appeared inconclusive, and jurors were left to rely largely on poorly educated, untrained former employees who testified about seeing babies squirm or make noises after mothers delivered them at the clinic.
Gosnell did not testify, and the defense called no witnesses. McMahon argued that no live births took place at the clinic because Gosnell terminated the pregnancies in utero by injecting the fetuses with a drug to stop their hearts. He also argued that Mongar died from unforeseen complications rather than from a reckless overdose of drugs.
Those nuances seemed to matter little outside the courtroom, where the case grew into a national spectacle. It became the territory of cable news talk and op-eds. Television cameras sat camped outside the courthouse each day. Protesters gathered across the street, waving posters with gory pictures of aborted fetuses.
Beyond Gosnell’s crimes, the case also spotlighted the failure of regulators to crack down sooner, despite repeated complaints and evidence of health violations at the clinic. Problems surfaced as early as 1989,according to a scathing grand jury report. But regulators rarely visited the clinic and allowed Gosnell to continue to operate, despite complaints from hospital workers who had treated injured patients, reports about a 14-year-old girl receiving an illegal abortion at 30 weeks of pregnancy, and the deaths of Mongar and another patient.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) has called the lack of oversight by state officials “despicable.” He fired or suspended some workers for negligence and announced that abortion clinics throughout the state would be subject to annual inspections and periodic unannounced visits.
Only in 2010, when authorities raided the clinic over its allegedly rampant distribution of painkillers, did authorities uncover evidence that led to Gosnell’s capital murder trial.
Gosnell also was found guilty Monday of numerous other crimes, including infanticide and racketeering. He was found guilty on more than 200 charges that he did not observe Pennsylvania’s 24-hour waiting period between first meeting with a patient and performing an abortion. He also was convicted on 21 of 24 charges of performing illegal late-term abortions.
Gosnell still faces federal charges for allegedly distributing prescription drugs, and a separate trial is scheduled for later this year.
Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.