A few days after Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s request to be represented by a city-funded public defender was denied by Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes—after all, it’s estimated Gosnell earned $1.8 million a year and owns almost 20 properties—he showed up to his preliminary arraignment yesterday afternoon flanked by big-wig attorney Jack McMahon.
McMahon and the prosecutors—homicide division ADAs Joanne Pescatore and Christine Wechsler are specially assigned to the case—have their work cut out for them. The allegations against Gosnell and his nine co-defendants are unprecedented, complicated and under the amplified scrutiny that comes with scandal. They are accused of performing illegal abortions, and in some cases killing infants. The 10 defendants face a Byzantine assortment of charges ranging from murder to conspiracy, plus charges associated with the illegal prescription pill-mill portion of the case.
Yesterday afternoon in court, Hughes commented that the Court of Common Pleas was “practically shut down” to arrange the hearing. It took more than a half-hour just to set up chairs to squeeze in all 10 defendants and their respective lawyers. An extra four sheriffs were removed from other duties to stand guard between the defendants and the packed audience benches.
“This is a circus,” commented a teary-eyed supporter of Eileen O’Niel, a defendant charged with theft by deception, conspiracy, perjury and falsely posing as a doctor at Gosnell’s now-shuttered clinic on 3901 Lancaster Ave. in West Philly.
McMahon is no stranger to circuses associated with notorious cases. He’s a former star prosecutor for the Commonwealth with a formidable reputation for flamboyant closing arguments and clearing clients of murder charges.
And yesterday in the courtroom, McMahon’s first appearance, he was already causing a ruckus.
The main thrust of yesterday’s proceedings was to determine whether a preliminary arraignment was necessary, or if the 281-page Grand Jury report—the result of eight months of investigation that included interviewing 63 witnesses—was sufficient to bypass a preliminary hearing and instead go straight to trial.
The prosecution argued that “the Grand Jury report is a reasonable substitute to a preliminary hearing.” They also pointed out the expense and logistical challenge of arranging all the experts to travel to Philadelphia and appear on one date.
The majority of defense attorneys objected to the request. McMahon aggressively argued his objection with Hughes, who had to ask him to be quiet so she could finish speaking when he talked over her.
“For some reason you won’t let me finish,” said McMahon, visibly flustered. He argued that “mere inconvenience and potential cost” should not be factored in to a decision that may affect what is likely to be a capital case.
“You all misapprehend the purpose of the preliminary hearing,” said Hughes. She said that the point of a preliminary hearing was to access if the defendants are “possibly guilty of the crime,” and ultimately decided that the work already put into the Grand Jury report, released Jan. 19, satisfies that requirement.
Hughes also pointed out that since the District Attorney’s Office generally decides if a case will be capital about three weeks after preliminary hearings, this does not in any way affect death sentence consideration.
Hughes also said that she believed bypassing preliminary hearing would actually serve to “advance” the defenses’ cases, since the prosecution will subsequently be ordered turn over all their discovery up front.
Immediately after the hearing outside in front of the Criminal Justice Center, McMahon held court while surround by a halo of network news cameras and microphones.
“Of course it’s horrendous allegations,” he said. “When a guy shoots somebody five times in the head every day in the city, that’s a horrendous allegation. That doesn’t make him guilty.”
Attorney Mary Maran is representing Pearl Gosnell, the doctor’s wife. She also spoke for cameras.
“I have pleaded [Pearl Gosnell] not guilty based on my reading of the Grand Jury testimony and the Grand Jury report. Pearl Gosnell is minimally involved at best,” Maran said.
Maran refuted the idea presented in the Grand Jury report that Pearl Gosnell regularly accompanied and assisted Gosnell on Sundays, when the most advanced of the illegal third-trimester abortions and infanticide is suspected to have taken place.
“There is an unnamed witness who draws a conclusion that Pearl Gosnell did accompany Dr. Gosnell on Sunday afternoons,” said Maran. “However there is nobody that can say that that actually happened.”
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