A few minutes after hearing the guilty verdicts against him, while attorneys huddled with the judge, Kermit Gosnell continued to shake his head in disbelief. Alternating between derisive snorts, and a bemused, sometimes bitter-looking smile, Gosnell stared into the jury box, seemingly unable to accept what had just happened to him—or what he faces next.
Gosnell will face a death penalty hearing, beginning May 21st, after being found guilty by a jury of six women and six men, in the first degree homicide of three babies born alive in his abortion clinic.
Gosnell was also convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of a woman who was administered an overdose of drugs during an abortion procedure.
He was also convicted of performing more than 20 illegal abortions on babies in the third trimester of development.
Kermit Gosnell first captured the public’s attention—and disgust—after the February 2010 raid of his West Philadelphia clinic. A notably blood-soaked grand jury report—and a pile of indictments—arrived the following year.
The grand jury report referred to Gosnell’s West Philadelphia clinic, in operation for nearly 40 years at 3801 Lancaster Avenue [WATCH VIDEO: Kermit Gosnell Documentary 3801 Lancaster], as a “baby charnel house,” and the media dubbed it a “House of Horrors.” The report cited walls, floors and blankets stained with blood. Gosnell used yellowing, outdated equipment and unsterilized instruments on a patient base largely too poor to go elsewhere. He trained his medical assistants to perform ultrasounds and administer dangerous narcotics, a function for which they were grossly unqualified. The two additional doctors who staffed his clinic, the Atlantic Women’s Medical Center, held medical degrees but no licenses.
Gosnell’s methods, however, shattered even more sacred orthodoxies. Under state law, abortions cannot be performed after 24 weeks of pregnancy, but the report alleged Gosnell took in women his staff often recognized, at first glance, as “too big.” Ultrasounds confirmed that some of these women were 26 weeks pregnant or more, at least two weeks past the state limit, and carrying babies potentially able to survive even a premature delivery. But Gosnell allegedly treated all his legal second-trimester and illegal third-trimester patients the same way: He induced labor through the use of Cytotec, to soften the cervix, and he had his staff of unqualified personnel feed these women so much Cytotec that sometimes the babies just dropped out of their mothers—on chairs and floors and into toilets.
These babies, some allegedly delivered alive and viable, all faced the same fate. Gosnell, or a staff member he trained in the “procedure,” took a pair of surgical scissors and stabbed it into the soft flesh at the back of the baby’s neck, severing the spinal cord. Gosnell called this “snipping” and told his staff it was all perfectly legal and, in fact, “standard procedure.” Gosnell saved the feet of some of these babies, cutting them off and preserving them in specimen jars, tiny toes poking out of formaldehyde murk.
Gosnell’s alleged victims also included the women who came to him for abortions and ended up with perforations to their bowels or uterus and sometimes severe infections. One woman, 22-year-old Semika Shaw, died of a sepsis infection. Another, Karnamaya Mongar, received such a heavy dose of sedatives, including a lethal dose of demerol, that her attempt to have her 19-week-long pregnancy terminated left her dead.
When the grand jury report was released, early in 2011, the grisly details triggered a predictable scrum among pro-choice and pro-life advocates, each of whom blamed the other for making the Gosnell “House of Horrors” possible.
Abortion opponents waved the findings around like a talisman—claiming that a desire to avoid political controversy and to honor calls to keep abortion accessible, had caused all the responsible government agencies to shirk their duties to investigate complaints or even conduct routine inspections. Gosnell’s clinic once went without inspection for 17 years. And the entire case built around his abortion practice was a kind of accident, triggered by a federal investigation into his “pain treatment” practice—a suspected “pill mill” allegedly responsible for funneling mass quantities of Oxycontin and Percocet into the city.
The pro-choice side retorted that a lack of access to safe, affordable abortion clinics was the real culprit, forcing mostly poor women into the corrupt halls of the only clinic that would have them.
The political right accused the media of ignoring Gosnell. Journalists on the left pointed to physical and virtual articles, in print and online, documenting the case. And for a time, the story of Gosnell’s clinic got lost in stories about whether the volume of coverage should have been greater. There were likely many reasons the story never became the center of national conversation. The fatal bombings at the Boston Marathon were one reason. The court’s policy of not allowing television cameras into the proceedings undoubtedly chased away network producers who act as if a case they can’t film simply isn’t happening. But the content of the trial itself likely comprised another. As a culture, we whisper the word “cancer,” but unless we are among the partisans in the debate, we tend not to speak about “abortion” at all. And at Kermit Gosnell’s trial, both legal and illegal abortion was described in often grisly detail, day after day and hour after grinding hour.
Prosecutors showed the jury multiple images of dead babies—allegedly born alive and past the gestational age at which abortion is legal—tiny fingers and toes, delicate limbs and new-baby locks of hair, these babies still and mottled and splayed out on exam tables or stuffed into a box. One image in particular, of a deep slit cut into the back of a baby boy’s neck, seemed to take all the blood described in the grand jury report and render it real—not words on a written indictment, but cruelty made manifest.
Defense attorney Jack McMahon, one of the top defense attorneys in town, put on a tremendous performance. He argued that there was no proof any baby was born alive, and got city medical examiner Sam Gulino, a prosecution witness, to agree with him under cross-examination.
Prosecutors questioned why any doctor would stab a dead baby in the back of the neck. But the case was far more of struggle than the grand jury report had led the media and public to believe. A trial attorney must tell jurors a story, and attorneys Ed Cameron and Joanne Pescatore had great difficulty lashing their 50-odd witnesses into a coherent narrative. In particular, they had to tie a raft of general anecdotes of live “babies” getting their necks “snipped” to the seven specific first degree murder cases involving Babies labeled “A-F.”
The pictures only went so far, proving too many and too few. And so their case was built almost entirely on eyewitness testimony by Gosnell’s staff, most of whom await sentencing on their own charges. Contradictions abounded. And what testimony applied to which baby?
Even Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart got confused. After testimony ended, Gosnell’s attorney, McMahon, argued that the prosecution had failed to make its case and asked Minehart to acquit the doctor of all charges. Minehart rejected most of McMahon’s argument, but did agree to acquit Gosnell on three of the first degree murder charges against him, declaring him “not guilty” in the murders of Babies “B,” “C” and “G.” The next day, however, he came in and amended himself, stating that he meant to acquit Gosnell on Baby “F” while allowing “C” to stand. The alphabet soup was difficult to follow. But the judge’s confusion made one clear statement just the same: The case was a muddle. Could anyone be certain of what the jury would do?
McMahon delivered a stirring closing argument. He brazenly argued that the entire prosecution of Gosnell, who is himself African-American, was “racist.” But more substantively, he noted how threadbare the prosecution’s case had really been. The clinic at 3801 Lancaster Avenue was, in fact, so insular that there was only one witness to this baby, two who disagreed over important details on that baby. Any movement a witness described seeing from a baby consisted of “one leg,” “one arm” a “single” respiration—more consistent, he said, with some “post-death” nerve impulse than actual life.
Cameron, a veteran homicide prosecutor, closed miserably, from the depths of what he told jurors was a “fever” that had left him feeling weak.
But a story had emerged from 3801 Lancaster Avenue, a story that may have been as chaotic as the allegations of what occurred there, yet a story that was clear enough to the jury, which emerged after 10 days of deliberations and found Gosnell guilty on three of four remaining first degree homicide counts: One of his own employees had snapped a photograph of “Baby A,” because the baby was “so big”and looked like it could have been “born any day.” She also testified that Gosnell came in and whisked that baby away, to “snip” its neck. They found him guilty in the murder of Baby C, a baby that had pulled its arm back when an employee tugged. And they found him guilty in the murder of Baby D, a baby born into a toilet, where one staff member saw it swirling its arms around in the water before its neck was snipped.
Gosnell continued to shake his head and offer sour smiles for several minutes. The only recourse left to him, it seemed, was to act like he was somehow still above it all.
For more details on this case, read Steve Volk’s “Inside the Trial of Abortion Doctor Kermit Gosnell” and “Gosnell Employee Took Photos of Clinic’s Horrors.”
Update [3:27 p.m.]: Kermit Gosnell has been found guilty on three of four charges of first-degree murder. He was also found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Karnamaya Mongar, the 41-year-old woman who died during an abortion proceeding. Lawyers will present cases on whether Gosnell should face the death penalty a week from tomorrow.
A verdict has been in reached in the case against Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell. He is charged with four counts of first-degree murder for babies he allegedly killed, one count of third-degree murder, and 263 other offenses, so it will take a while for all of them to be divulged. Stay tuned for updates.