Hearing set on legal issues in Gosnell abortion murder case

The complex process of bringing Commonwealth v. Kermit Gosnell to trial - a case charging illegal abortions and murder, with 10 defendants and more than a dozen lawyers - got under way Wednesday before a veteran Philadelphia judge.

How complex?

The toughest question that Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner posed during the brief hearing was: "What date is everybody available?"

Pocket calendars and cell phones popped out along the row of lawyers.

After trying two dates for the next hearing with no unanimity, Lerner opted to go with a majority for April 13, with the missing sending representatives.

Gosnell, 70, is charged with performing illegal late-term abortions at his Women's Medical Society clinic at 3801 Lancaster Ave. in West Philadelphia He is charged with one count of third-degree murder in a woman's death during a 2009 abortion and seven counts of first-degree murder involving infants born viable.

Gosnell's wife, Pearl, 50, is charged with taking part in an illegal late-term abortion, being part of a conspiracy, and helping operate a corrupt organization.

Eight clinic employees were also charged Jan. 19 - four with murder - as recommended in a county grand jury's 260-page report.

Lerner handles pretrial motions in all homicide cases in Philadelphia. When the motions are resolved, he will "spin out" the case to one of seven homicide judges on a rotating assignment list.

But it will be months - maybe more than a year - before Lerner reaches that point, given the diverse legal issues expected from the defendants.

Wednesday, for example, lawyer Murray Dolfman, who represents Elizabeth Hampton, 53, Gosnell's sister-in-law, told Lerner that he would file a severance motion to try Hampton separately. Though an in-law who rents her home from the Gosnells and who was a sometime clinic employee, she is basically charged with lying to investigators and perjury before the grand jury.

Severance motions are commonly filed by an attorney whose client is a low-level participant in an alleged crime scheme. The fear is the low-level player will be lumped together by the jury in a guilty verdict because of the more notorious codefendants.

Lerner said he expected other severance motions to be filed. He is also likely to be confronted with additional requests for reduced bail.

Four of the 10 defendants are free, including two whose bail Lerner reduced this month.

Gosnell is being held without bail because of the first-degree murder charges, which could expose him to the death penalty if he is convicted. Three others are being held without bail and one in lieu of $2 million.

Monday, Lerner will again consider Pearl Gosnell's motion to reduce her $1 million bail. She needs to find a new lawyer because of Lerner's March 18 decision to disqualify attorney Mary T. Maran. Lerner ruled that Maran's representation would pose a conflict of interest because she is an associate of Jack McMahon, who represents Kermit Gosnell.


Contact staff writer Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com.