Dr. Kermit Gosnell in an undated photo released by the Philadelphia district attorney's office.
PHILADELPHIA — A lawyer defending a Philadelphia abortion provider on murder charges accused officials of "an elitist, racist prosecution" as the death-penalty trial opened Monday.
Lawyer Jack McMahon also accused city officials of "a prosecutorial lynching" of his client, Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who is black.
Gosnell, 72, is accused of running a rogue clinic that ignored the state ban on third-term abortions and 24-hour waiting periods. Prosecutors say he also maimed desperate, often poor women and teens by letting his untrained staff perform abortions and give anesthesia. And they say he got rich doing it, by performing a high volume of substandard abortions.
Police found $250,000 in cash during a 2010 search of his home, Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore told jurors. Gosnell used outmoded drugs and improper methodology, forcing women to deliver live babies that were then killed by staff with scissors, she said.
"The standard practice here was to slay babies. That's what they did," said Pescatore, who echoed a 2011 grand jury report in calling the clinic "a house of horrors."
Staff went along with the routine because they were nearly as desperate as the women, she said. The two other "doctors" on staff were allegedly medical school doctors without licenses. The woman giving anesthesia was a sixth-grade dropout who could hardly read or write, Pescatore said. And one of the employees who advanced from the reception area to the operating room was a 15-year-old high school student.
She often worked until 3 a.m. and went to school late each day, Pescatore said.
But McMahon said city officials are applying "Mayo Clinic" standards to Gosnell's inner-city office in West Philadelphia.
"This is a targeted, elitist and racist prosecution of a doctor who's done nothing but give (back) to the poor and the people of West Philadelphia," the fiery McMahon insisted to the predominantly black jury, as Gosnell sat serenely taking notes. "It's a prosecutorial lynching of Dr. Kermit Gosnell."
Gosnell is charged with killing seven babies born alive, along with Karnamaya Mongar, a newly arrived 41-year-old refugee from Bhutan. Prosecutors say Gosnell's staff gave the 90-pound woman a lethal dose of anesthesia and painkillers during a 2009 abortion.
But McMahon said he will prove that she also had other drugs in her system that did not come from Gosnell's clinic, perhaps from an attempt to self-abort the fetus using a tuberculosis drug. She also had unreported bronchial problems — she did not speak English — and died of complications, he said.
And he said the government cannot prove the seven babies were born alive. There is no physical evidence on five of the deaths; the murder charge is instead based on staff testimony that the babies cried or moved.
Authorities have a photograph of the sixth baby, who allegedly had a gestational age of 30 weeks, and the body of the seventh. But McMahon argued that neither took a breath or was otherwise born alive.
He conceded the case will be emotional and upsetting for jurors and everyone else involved "because we all love babies."
"It strikes a chord in all of us," he said.
Gosnell faces the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder in the infant deaths. He is charged with third-degree murder in Mongar's death.
Eight co-defendants have pleaded guilty, most of whom will testify against Gosnell. Three of them pleaded guilty to third-degree murder, which carries a 20- to 40-year term. They have not yet been sentenced.
The only former employee on trial with Gosnell is Eileen O'Neill of Phoenixville, who allegedly held herself out as a doctor at the clinic when she was not licensed. Her lawyer was set to give his opening statements Monday afternoon.
The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks.