Medical examiner had to thaw fetal remains in Philly abortion doctor case

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013 - 8:49am

PHILADELPHIA (CNN) -- The remains of aborted fetuses were stored in water jugs, pet food containers and a freezer at a West Philadelphia abortion clinic, the city's chief medical examiner testified in the murder trial of the doctor who ran the facility.

Medical Examiner Sam Gulino told jurors Monday he had to examine the remains of 47 aborted fetuses, some of which were frozen, as part of the investigation into the charges against Dr. Kermit Gosnell.

Authorities accuse Gosnell, 72, of using scissors to sever the spinal cords of fetuses who emerged from their mothers still alive.

"There was no guidance on how to proceed," Gulino said, adding that the lacerated fetuses had to be thawed slowly so the tissue would not be destroyed. "I was never asked to do that (before)."

Gosnell faces eight counts of murder for the deaths of seven babies and a 41-year-old Virginia woman, Karnamaya Mongar, who died of an anesthetic overdose during a second-trimester abortion. He has pleaded not guilty.

A grand jury investigation determined that health and licensing officials had received repeated reports about Gosnell's practices for two decades, but had taken no action, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said.

When authorities searched Gosnell's office, they found bags and bottles holding aborted fetuses scattered throughout the building. Jars containing the severed feet of babies lined a shelf. Furniture and equipment was blood-stained, dusty and broken.

"My grasp of the English language doesn't really allow me to fully describe how horrific this clinic was -- rotting bodies, fetal remains, the smell of urine throughout, blood-stained," Williams said.

The remains, ranging in age from 12 to 28 weeks, were stored in a variety of non-medical containers such as a plastic water jugs or cat and dog food containers, Gulino testified during the fifth week of the trial. In Pennsylvania, abortions past 24 weeks are illegal unless the health of the mother is at stake.

In the courtroom of Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart, Assistant District Attorney Edward Cameron questioned Gulino about a series of graphic photos showing several fetuses with severed limbs and "defects" in the back of the neck that resembled holes.

When a photo of a fetus was projected onto a pull-down screen, one juror gasped and shut her eyes, while several other jurors shifted in their seats and took notes. During the exchange, Gosnell, dressed in a suit and tie, removed his glasses and intently examined the image on a nearby monitor.

Along with an examination chair with stirrups facing the jury box, a sonogram machine and other medical devices are on permanent display in the center of the courtroom.

Gosnell's high-profile defense attorney, Jack McMahon, paced the courtroom during his cross examination, pressing Gulino to confirm that he could not absolutely determine that the infants were born alive. McMahon has maintained that none of the infants was killed; rather, they were already deceased as a result of Gosnell previously administering the abortion drug Digoxin.

Prior to dismissing the court Monday, Judge Minehart reminded jurors that there was "enhanced media coverage" of the trial and to "remain vigilant" in their order not to read, watch or listen to media stories relating to the proceedings. Meanwhile, a gag order remains in place preventing attorneys or the jury from speaking to the media.

Also on trial is Eileen O'Neill, 56, a medical school graduate who worked as a doctor at Gosnell's clinic. O'Neill, who did not have a medical license, is not charged with performing abortions but with participating in the operation of a "corrupt organization."

If found guilty, Gosnell could be sentenced to death.

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