PHILADELPHIA — An abortion doctor was convicted Monday of first-degree murder and could face execution in the deaths of three babies who were delivered alive and then killed with scissors at his grimy, "house of horrors" clinic.
In a case that became a grisly flashpoint in the nation's abortion debate, Dr. Kermit Gosnell, 72, was also found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the overdose death of an abortion patient. He was cleared in the death of a fourth baby, who prosecutors say let out a whimper before the doctor cut the spinal cord.
The jury reached its verdict on its 10th day of deliberations. It will return May 21 to hear evidence on whether Gosnell, who portrayed himself as an advocate for poor and desperate women in an impoverished West Philadelphia neighborhood, should get the death penalty.
Gosnell attorney Jack McMahon called it a "very difficult case" to defend. "There's a lot of emotion. You have the baby factor, which is a big problem. The media has been overwhelmingly against him," he said.
District Attorney Seth Williams declined comment until after the sentencing phase, citing a gag order.
Former clinic employees testified that Gosnell routinely performed illegal abortions past Pennsylvania's 24-week limit, that he delivered babies who were still moving, whimpering or breathing, and that he and his assistants dispatched the newborns by "snipping" their spines, as he referred to it.
Gosnell was also convicted of infanticide, racketeering and more than 200 counts of violating Pennsylvania's abortion laws by performing third-term abortions or failing to counsel women 24 hours in advance.
His co-defendant, former clinic employee Eileen O'Neill, was convicted of taking part in a corrupt organization and illegally billing for her services as if she were a licensed doctor.
The gruesome details came out more than two years ago during an investigation of prescription drug trafficking at Gosnell's clinic. Investigators said it was a foul-smelling "house of horrors" with bags and bottles of fetuses, including jars of severed feet, along with bloodstained furniture, dirty medical instruments, and cats roaming the premises.
Pennsylvania authorities had failed to conduct routine inspections of all its abortion clinics for 15 years by the time Gosnell's facility was raided. In the scandal's aftermath, two top state health officials were fired, and Pennsylvania imposed tougher rules for clinics.
Four former clinic employees pleaded guilty to murder and four more to other charges. They include Gosnell's wife, Pearl, a cosmetologist who helped perform abortions.
Both sides in the highly charged abortion debate endorsed the verdict.
"This has helped more people realize what abortion is really about," said David O'Steen, executive director of the National Right to Life Committee.
Supporters of legalized abortion said the case was a preview of what poor, desperate young women could face if abortion is driven underground with more restrictive laws.
After prosecutors rested their five-week case, Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Minehart threw out for lack of evidence three of seven murder counts involving aborted fetuses. That left the jury to weigh charges involving fetuses identified as Baby A, Baby C, Baby D and Baby E.
Prosecution experts said one was nearly 30 weeks along when the abortion took place and was so big that Gosnell allegedly joked the baby could "walk to the bus." A second baby was said to be alive for about 20 minutes before a clinic worker snipped the neck. A third was born in a toilet and was moving before another clinic employee severed the spinal cord, according to testimony.
Gosnell's attorney argued that none of the fetuses was born alive and any movements were posthumous twitching or spasms.
Gosnell did not testify, and his lawyer called no witnesses in his defense. But McMahon branded prosecutors "elitist" and "racist" for pursuing his client, who is black and whose patients were mostly poor minorities.
Authorities said the Gosnell's medical practice netted him about $1.8 million a year, much of it in cash. Authorities found $250,000 hidden in a bedroom when they searched his house. Gosnell also owned a beach home and several rental properties.