PHILADELPHIA — A former clinic worker testified Thursday that he routinely saw babies born alive and then killed with scissors at an inner-city Philadelphia clinic that catered to minorities, the poor and women with late-term pregnancies.
But unlicensed doctor Stephen Massof also thought clinic owner Kermit Gosnell was trying to help vulnerable women seeking abortions. Dr. Gosnell, 72, is on trial for capital murder, charged with killing a woman patient and seven newborns.
"I believe that Dr. Gosnell was honestly trying to help women and protect them from abuse and neglect," Massof, a prosecution witness, said on cross-examination.
The statement came in questioning about why Gosnell kept fetal samples, including severed feet, in jars at the clinic. Massof said that Gosnell measured the feet to estimate gestational age, which could help confirm or disprove sexual assault allegations. Prosecution experts have said there are no sound medical reasons for an abortion provider to do that, when blood and other samples can be stored.
The trial is in its third week and is expected to last another month.
Massof awaits sentencing after pleading guilty to third-degree murder for two infant deaths. Eight clinic employees have pleaded guilty to various charges, while a ninth is on trial with Gosnell. Eileen O'Neill, another unlicensed doctor, is charged with theft for allegedly practicing medicine without a license.
O'Neill did not perform abortions, but instead worked in an upstairs office with older women and others seeking gynecological or general care, Massof said. She came downstairs frequently to confer with Gosnell, he told defense lawyer James Berardinelli, who was apparently trying to show that O'Neill was only assisting Gosnell with patient care.
Massof, who grew up near Pittsburgh, said he spent seven years doing graduate-level medical research at Yale, Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere, but then went to medical school in Grenada when U.S. schools turned him down. He called medical school his "backup plan," after a stint owning a bar didn't work out.
A mutual acquaintance led him to Gosnell's clinic, where he spent five years before leaving in 2008 over a dispute with other staffers. He was charged with murder three years later, after a 2010 FBI probe of Gosnell's distribution of painkillers spawned a raid at the clinic, and the more serious abortion case.
Massof smiled oddly Thursday as he gave graphic testimony about conditions at the clinic, which he said deteriorated during his five-year tenure. He made only $200 to $300 a week to oversee a high volume of second-trimester patients going through labor – and, often, delivery. He said he saw at least one baby take a breath, and another jerk its leg. Gosnell told his staff that such movements were "spontaneous," Massof said.
Massof estimated that he saw about 100 babies born alive and then "snipped" with surgical scissors in the back of the neck, to ensure their "demise."
Gosnell, who had another clinic in Delaware, typically came in only at night for the final part of the procedure, leaving Massof to monitor the pain-racked or highly sedated women.
"I felt like a firemen in hell. I couldn't put out all the fires," he testified.
Gosnell, meanwhile, took in more than $1 million a year, and kept $250,000 in cash under his mattress, prosecutors have said.
"He always led me to believe he was a poor, struggling urban physician and surgeon," Massof said. "I thought he was hurting financially."
Outside the courthouse Thursday, leaders of two black, anti-abortion groups condemned Gosnell as racist for aborting so many black babies during his 30-year career. Gosnell, who is also black, performed as many as 1,000 abortions a year, many to minorities and immigrants.
"Kermit Gosnell is a racist of the worst kind," Day Gardner, president of the National Black Pro-Life Union, said. "He is also a butcher who preyed on the women and girls of his own race – making millions of dollars from the desperation and despair of women from his own community."
The trial resumes Monday.