Philadelphia abortion doctor likely to face death penalty

PHILADELPHIA Wed Mar 2, 2011 1:22pm EST

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PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Philadelphia prosecutors paved the way in court on Wednesday toward seeking the death penalty for a doctor accused of killing live, viable babies at his abortion clinic.

Prosecutors filed notice that the case against Dr. Kermit Gosnell, who faces multiple charges of first-degree murder, meets the standards of a death penalty case, said assistant District Attorney Christine Wechsler outside Common Pleas court.

Gosnell, his wife Pearl and eight employees of the west Philadelphia abortion clinic known as the Women's Medical Society are accused in the deaths of seven babies and also the 2009 death of a woman given too much anesthesia.

The filing by the Philadelphia District Attorney's office is a first step if prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty. More than 200 prisoners are on death row in Pennsylvania, which held its last execution in 1999.

"They are seeking the death penalty," Gosnell's defense attorney Jack McMahon said after the brief arraignment hearing before Trial Commissioner Linda Mariani.

Gosnell, who is held in jail without bail, was not present for the proceedings.

In its findings, the grand jury in the case said: "This case is about a doctor who killed babies and endangered women.

"What we mean is that he regularly and illegally delivered live, viable babies in the third trimester of pregnancy and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors," it said in its 260-page findings last month.

"The medical practice by which he carried out this business was a filthy fraud in which he overdosed his patients with dangerous drugs, spread venereal disease among them with infected instruments, perforating their wombs and bowels and on at least two occasions caused their deaths," it said.

Gosnell's defense attorney said seeking the death penalty made little sense as his client is 70 years old and has no prior convictions. He also said a trial with capital punishment involved would be double or triple the time and cost of a trial without a death penalty attached.

The grand jury also was highly critical of state and city agencies and officials who it said had reason to know what was going on at the clinic but failed to act. One heading in its findings was entitled: "Murder in Plain Sight.

Several state employees were fired in the wake of the discoveries at Gosnell's clinic.

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton)

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