PHILADELPHIA — A lawyer defending a Philadelphia abortion provider on murder charges accused officials of "an elitist, racist prosecution," as the death-penalty trial opened Monday.
Lawyer Jack McMahon also accused city officials of "a prosecutorial lynching" of his client, Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who is black.
Gosnell, 72, is accused of running a rogue clinic that ignored the state ban on third-term abortions and 24-hour waiting periods. Prosecutors say he also maimed desperate, often poor women and teens by letting his untrained staff perform abortions and give anesthesia. And they say he got rich doing it, by performing a high volume of substandard abortions.
Police found $250,000 in cash during a 2010 search of his home, Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore said. Gosnell used outmoded drugs and unorthodox methods, forcing women to endure labor and then deliver live babies that were then killed by staff with scissors, she said. Normally, the fetus is killed in utero.
"The standard practice here was to slay babies. That's what they did," said Pescatore, who echoed a 2011 grand jury report in calling the clinic "a house of horrors."
Staff went along with the routine because they were nearly as desperate as the patients, she said. The two other "doctors" on staff were allegedly medical school graduates without licenses. The employee giving anesthesia was a sixth-grade dropout, while a 15-year-old high school student helped in the surgical and recovery rooms, she said.
McMahon countered that prosecutors are applying "Mayo Clinic" standards to Gosnell's inner-city office in West Philadelphia. Gosnell, he said, performed as many as 1,000 abortions a year, and at least 16,000 over his long career – with a lower-than-average complication rate, he said.
"This is a targeted, elitist and racist prosecution of a doctor who's done nothing but give (back) to the poor and the people of West Philadelphia," the fiery McMahon insisted to the predominantly black jury, as Gosnell sat serenely taking notes. "It's a prosecutorial lynching of Dr. Kermit Gosnell."
Gosnell is charged with killing seven babies born alive, along with Karnamaya Mongar a newly-arrived, 41-year-old refugee from Bhutan. Prosecutors say Gosnell's staff gave the 90-pound woman a lethal dose of anesthesia and painkillers during a 2009 abortion.
But McMahon said he will prove that she also had other drugs in her system, perhaps from an attempt to self-abort the fetus using a tuberculosis drug. She also had bronchial problems that she did not report – she did not speak English – and died of unfortunate complications, he said.
As for the infant deaths, McMahon vowed to prove that none were born alive. No physical evidence exists in five of the deaths; the murder charges are instead based on staff testimony that the babies moved or cried.
Authorities have a photograph of the sixth baby, who allegedly had a gestational age of 30 weeks, and the body of the seventh. But McMahon argued that neither took a breath.
He conceded the case will be emotional and upsetting for jurors and everyone else involved "because we all love babies."
Investigators stumbled into the abortion case during a 2010 FBI drug raid of the clinic, as agents investigated Gosnell's high-volume distribution of painkillers. They hoped to search the premises and interview him one evening when no abortions were under way.
Instead, they found about a half-dozen women in the midst of the procedure, and Gosnell arriving only for the delivery. Some women appeared heavily medicated and in pain, and were taken by ambulance to other facilities. But Gosnell, as he spoke with the agents, was allowed to finish the other cases.
When he returned, he sat with his surgical gloves on and ate dinner during the interview, an agent testified.
"He was still wearing his bloody latex gloves. They had some holes in them. And he ate his dinner. He didn't take them off," FBI agent Jason Huff testified.
Gosnell faces the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder in the infant deaths. He is charged with third-degree murder in Mongar's death.
Eight co-defendants have pleaded guilty, most of whom will testify against Gosnell. Three pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, which carries a 20- to 40-year term.
The only employee on trial with Gosnell is Eileen O'Neill, 52, of Phoenixville, who allegedly held herself out as a doctor at the clinic when she was not licensed. Her lawyer told jurors she never did so, and only performed medical duties under Gosnell's orders.
The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks.
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