PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A Philadelphia jury began weighing murder charges Tuesday against a doctor charged with killing five people, including four viable babies allegedly born alive at his abortion clinic.
Dr. Kermit Gosnell, 72, performed thousands of abortions over a 30-year career, and authorities say he routinely performed illegal, late-term procedures. He maintains that he helped desperate women and teens who had no other access to medical care.
According to prosecutors, Gosnell cut live babies in the back of the neck to sever their spines because he did not know how to do a proper abortion in utero.
Gosnell is also charged in the 2009 death of a woman patient who was given anesthesia and monitored by two troubled medical assistants and a teenager. By that point, state officials had not inspected Gosnell’s clinic since the early 1990s, prosecutors said.
“When people (who are) supposed to regulate these folks don’t do it right, that’s what happens,” Assistant District Attorney Ed Cameron told jurors in closing arguments Monday. “Back alley abortions. Coat hanger abortions. That’s what happens.”
Gosnell faces 258 counts in all, including four first-degree murder counts, which could bring the death penalty. Clinic workers have admitted killing two of those babies, and accuse Gosnell of killing the other two. But he could be found guilty in all four deaths if the jury finds he shared the intent to kill, the judge said Wednesday in jury instructions.
Other charges against him include one count each of infanticide and racketeering, 24 counts of performing third-trimester abortions and 227 counts of failing to counsel patients a day in advance.
Gosnell’s clinic has been shuttered, and two top state health department officials fired, since the FBI raided the clinic one night in 2010 looking for prescription drug abuses. Instead, they found Gosnell’s nocturnal clinic in full swing.
Defense lawyer Jack McMahon argued that prosecutors who blasted the clinic as a filthy, flea-infested “house of horrors” in a 2011 grand jury report sensationalized the case to make headlines.
“This isn’t a perfect place by any stretch of the imagination — but it isn’t what they say it is,” McMahon argued.
Eight former workers have pleaded guilty to murder other charges and have testified to seeing babies move, breathe or whine. Yet some said they did not consider the babies fully alive until they were charged after a 2011 grand jury investigation.
McMahon has seized on that point and argued again Monday that the occasional spasms the workers saw were not the wriggling movements of a newborn baby. Under Pennsylvania law, the judge explained to jurors, babies “born alive” must be expelled or removed from the mother and show one of the following signs of life: brain activity, breathing, the definitive movement of a muscle or the pulsing of the umbilical cord.
McMahon acknowledged that jurors have seen graphic, even grisly, photographs of aborted babies and bloody medical equipment.