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Macabre Details Emerge in Murder Trial of Abortion Doctor Kermit Gosnell

April 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The murder trial of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell has drawn national attention. Gosnell is being tried on eight counts of murder including allegedly killing babies after they were born alive and viable. Judy Woodruff talks with Maryclaire Dale of the Associated Press.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally: the murder trial of an abortion provider that has captured national attention.

Judy Woodruff has the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A judge and jury in Philadelphia began hearing testimony in the case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell more than a month ago. But over the past two weeks, the trial has received more coverage from national news organizations after both sides of the abortion debate began fighting over its significance.

Gosnell is being tried on eight counts of murder, seven of them for allegedly killing babies that prosecutors say were born alive and viable. The eighth count is for his role in the death of an immigrant from Bhutan. Attorneys say she died of an overdose from a sedative she was given. The case stems from an FBI raid on his Philadelphia clinic in 2010.

Investigators found horrific conditions and say he performed some abortions after the 24-week legal limit in Pennsylvania. Gosnell’s defense is scheduled to begin this week, and observers are waiting to see if he will testify.

Reporter Maryclaire Dale of the Associated Press has covered the trial since it began. And she joins us tonight from Philadelphia.

Welcome to the program.

Maryclaire Dale, what, first of all, tell us are the charges against Dr. Gosnell?

MARYCLAIRE DALE, Associated Press: Good evening.

The charges include eight counts of murder. Seven of them are first-degree murder and could bring the death penalty. Those are the charges involving the babies who were allegedly born alive. The eighth murder count is a third-degree murder count involving the overdose death of the 41-year-old patient, Karnamaya Mongar.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this all stemmed, as we said, from investigators coming into the clinic a few years ago. They were actually looking for something else.

MARYCLAIRE DALE: Yes, indeed.

They were responding, we think, to a tip about drug, his prescribing of prescription drugs, including OxyContin. He was apparently one of the more high-volume prescribers in the state of Pennsylvania. And the raid was intended to examine that. Allegedly, he was freely writing prescriptions for addicts and drug dealers, et cetera.

But what the FBI and other federal and state authorities stumbled upon when they were there was that abortions were going on that evening. They were expecting to arrive at the clinic in the evening and find that — they were hoping that they wouldn’t encounter the abortion going on. They didn’t want to interrupt that.

But, in fact, Gosnell tended to perform the surgeries that night after the patients had been there during the day. And they found, they said, very unsanitary, filthy conditions, somewhat macabre findings, including fetuses that were stored in the freezer. During the trial, we learned that that was perhaps because he was in a billing dispute with his medical disposal company and had nowhere to — they were not being picked up.

So that actually provided evidence for prosecutors. They could perform autopsies and, you know, learn whether or not they believed the babies were late-term and, you know, conduct other investigation on the findings in the clinic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, much of the testimony has been pretty graphic.

What kinds of things have you been hearing, including from his former employees?

MARYCLAIRE DALE: Right.

Much of the prosecution testimony does come from former employees, eight of whom have pleaded guilty in the case. Three of them indeed pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and await sentencing. Of course, they will get credit for their cooperation.

They have testified to a number of things, including about themselves that they were often unlicensed or untrained. Some of the women who were doing I.V. drug administration, as well always ultrasounds and indeed assisting with abortions, had merely a few months of training from a medical — to be medical assistants.

Another young woman was a 15-year-old teenager when she began working there through some sort of a school externship program. And she too came to work in the procedure room. And then there were two unlicensed doctors who were working there, one who dealt mainly with non-abortion patients, often geriatric patients who were there just for basic medical care, but another, Steven Massof, who has testified that he himself performed many of these abortions. And he admits that he killed babies after they were born alive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That — some of the testimony has been about that, about babies being born alive, and then being put to death there in the delivery room.

MARYCLAIRE DALE: Right. That is true.

And so the jury has heard quite graphic testimony, in addition to some photographs that employees took, some cell phone photographs and other photographs. Of course, we have the investigative photographs of the clinic and some of the fetuses that were found that night.

So, the testimony is quite jarring. But there was about two weeks of jury selection. And the judge did make sure that he found jurors who thought that they could tolerate that and still judge the case fairly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what are you expecting? I know the defense is supposed to be getting under way. What are they expected to say?

MARYCLAIRE DALE: Well, much of the defense has really already been taking place on cross-examination, as is often the case in trials.

The defense lawyer for Dr. Gosnell, Jack McMahon, has argued through his questioning and through his opening statements that there were no live births at the clinic, in his view of the case. He says that staff members who saw babies or thought they saw babies move were merely witnessing some involuntary responses amid the death process.

And so that is his argument to the staff testimony. Also, in opening statements, prosecutors had said that they would be able to prove at trial that — from the fetal remains that two babies took breaths — took a breath based on the autopsies, but when the medical examiner for the city of Philadelphia came on, he stopped short of being able to confirm that. He says that he actually could not confirm that because of the deterioration of the cells once they were able to do the autopsies on some of these aborted fetuses.

So the defense is — you know, plans to also bring character witnesses. And we are not yet sure whether Dr. Gosnell will testify. He did do an interview while he was under investigation. He did a media interview. He seems not shy about talking. So we will see. We expect that he might well come on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Maryclaire Dale, one final question. We mentioned the dispute about the media’s focused attention. How much media attention has there been on this trial?

MARYCLAIRE DALE: Well, there was quite a bit when the grand jury report came out in 2011. That was almost a 300-page report. There was both local and national media.

And there has been coverage throughout the trial. There was more once there was some back-and-forth about whether enough media outlets were covering it. The one thing is, they’re — cameras are not allowed in courtrooms in the state of Pennsylvania. There’s a gag order in this trial which prevents lawyers from speaking outside the courtroom, so it is a bit tough for broadcasters to, you know, get the kind of footage that they typically might wish to get.

There are more people here now covering the trial. And so we will see from here on out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Maryclaire Dale covering the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell in Philadelphia, thank you very much.

MARYCLAIRE DALE: Thank you.