For several hours, at least, the spectator section for Kermit Gosnell’s mass murder trial got a lot more crowded. After complaints from pro-life and conservative commentators reached a crescendo last week and Slate and the Atlantic responded, a tipping point seemed to be reached: Reporters arrived Monday morning from the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Fox News to watch the trial of Gosnell, the West Philly abortionist charged with killing one patient and seven babies.
After 3 p.m., however, the room started to empty. Whether that was due to train schedules or the tragic, fatal bomb explosions at the Boston Marathon was unclear. But from my perspective, as a reporter who has been covering the trial daily for going on three weeks, it seems unlikely that the Gosnell trial will receive the gavel to gavel national coverage conservatives are saying they want. And the reason is this case just doesn’t have the ingredients that spark a cable television report and chat cycle of testimony recap, pop psych and rampant speculation.
A mass murder trial involving the killing of babies? Sounds like a story. And there are serious issues at play, involving health care, government oversight, and the cultural hot button of abortion.
Pro-choice activists tout the case as an example of why society needs less restrictive abortions laws, to encourage more practitioners to enter the field and run clinics like Gosnell’s—squalid, unsanitary, never mind criminal—out of business.
Pro-life commentators can also use the case in a variety of ways. Thus far, court testimony has often yielded up a litany of gross images of legal abortion, with medical providers at reputable institutions describing stopping the heart of a fetus or baby with an injection before ripping it out in pieces—a leg, an arm, a rib cage. Gosnell’s defense attorney, Jack McMahon, has also subtly called into question the seeming arbitrariness of Pennsylvania abortion law, which deems 23 weeks and six days of gestation to have produced a legally abortable “fetus,” while an extra day of gestation yields—at 24 weeks—a legally protected baby.
But substance may not be the real issue here. The fact is, poor minorities—the bulk of Gosnell’s clientele—are rarely at the center of media firestorms. Cable television is, historically, more likely to follow a trial involving a pretty white woman, like Nicole Brown Simpson, Casey Anthony or Jodi Arias than one where the alleged victim is Karnamaya Mongar, a Bhutanese immigrant.
Further, the case is particularly hard to make palatable to an audience precisely because so much of the testimony is so graphic and involves violence done largely to babies.
Yesterday, in fact, that new flock of reporters was shown a picture of one of Gosnell’s alleged victims—a post-24-weeks-gestational-age baby with a puncture wound to the back of its soft, pudgy neck. The image, displayed on a big screen in the courtroom, was vivid and ugly, including an intimate close-up of the wound at the very spot where prosecutors and witnesses say Gosnell “snipped” the spinal cords of his alleged victims. The case may be “sensational,” in other words, if by that we mean likely to create great public interest, but it might simply be too jarring, in comparison to the typical murder porn in which cable TV traffics.
There are also other, media industry-driven reasons to skip this trial or give it less than complete coverage: smaller newsrooms with limited resources, and the fact that cameras aren’t allowed in the courtroom. So don’t expect yesterday’s surprise appearance, by Kimberly Guilfoyle, from Fox’s The Five, to become an everyday thing. Instead, this story will likely continue to generate a lot of coverage without ever becoming the “hot” story. Yesterday’s tragedy at the Boston Marathon probably even kicks this likelihood up a notch, to a virtual certainty. A bigger story just came along. And the media, simply in doing its job, will follow it. But that doesn’t mean the Gosnell story isn’t worthy. Monday’s testimony was, in fact, particularly gripping.
Prosecutors largely focused on evidence in the deaths of babies they referred to as “Baby 1-B” and “Baby 1-C.” They showed that puncture wound, and full-size pictures of dead, pink babies sadly isolated against cold, white backgrounds. Sam Gulino, Philadelphia’s chief medical examiner, described his work on the case as “unprecedented.”
He received bags from investigators that contained the frozen remains of 47 fetuses collected from Gosnell’s clinic. And he had to begin the nasty task of organizing and examining them. He determined that 17 were aborted in the first trimester, 28 in the second, and that two babies (“1-B” and “1-C”) were third trimester, and therefore past the gestational age for legal abortion. Under cross-examination by Gosnell’s defense attorney, however, Gulino admitted he couldn’t be sure that any of the 47 babies was born alive.
Gosnell, according to earlier testimony, had taken to freezing fetuses on site while he engaged in a billing dispute with a medical waste disposal company, which stopped coming. This damaged and degraded some of the tissue, making it impossible for Gulino to draw definitive conclusions.
The prosecution’s case doesn’t rest solely on forensic evidence. In fact, the bulk of the evidence they’ve accumulated comes from eyewitnesses, some of whom, including Steven Massof and Adrienne Moton, admitted they “snipped” the necks of babies born alive—as they alleged they were taught by Gosnell. But Gulino’s testimony acted as a reminder that the ending of this story is unsettled.
“So you can’t testify, to a medical certainty, that any of these babies was born alive?” McMahon asked repeatedly, in various iterations over about 10 minutes of particularly dramatic testimony.
“No,” replied Gulino.
By this time, some of the new reporters who’d ventured in that morning had left for the day.
UPDATE [4/16/13]: Only the Washington Post reporter returned this morning.