A woman charged with helping her physician-husband operate a deadly abortion clinic lost her lawyer Friday after a judge learned the attorney had visited the doctor in prison.
Common Pleas Judge Benjamin Lerner removed lawyer Mary Maran from the case despite Pearl Gosnell's plea to keep her. He found that Maran had too strong a potential conflict of interest, since the doctor is represented by a lawyer in her office.
Kermit Gosnell, 70, is charged with eight counts of murder in the botched-abortion death of a patient and the deaths of seven late-term babies who prosecutors say were born alive and then killed with scissors. Nine other defendants are also charged, several of them with murder.
Pearl Gosnell, 50, is charged with lesser crimes, including conspiracy and helping perform illegal late-term abortions. The judge fears that her right to pursue a defense independent of her husband will be compromised if the couple's lawyers work together on the case or even harbor concerns about the other's client.
Maran had agreed last month to keep a firewall between the husband-and-wife defense cases but visited the doctor three times in prison.
Maran said she did so only to discuss the couple's tangled finances with respect to her legal fees.
"The right to be represented by a lawyer of her choosing is a basic pillar of law but not absolute," Lerner said. "A defendant, in making those choices _ about strategy, about defense witnesses, about jury selection _ has the fundamental right to be represented by counsel who is not only effective, but free ... of dual loyalties."
The Gosnells and eight other clinic employees were charged by a grand jury after a lengthy investigation prompted by a federal drug raid on the clinic in January 2010. The clinic catered to mostly low-income, minority women, dozens of whom were left with perforated organs or other injuries, prosecutors said. State health officials charged with regulating the medical facility failed to inspect it for more than a decade or respond to repeated complaints, the grand jury found.
Pearl Gosnell, a cosmetologist by training, helped out at the clinic on Sundays, prosecutors said. She put her head in her hands and cried Friday after Lerner's ruling.
"It's an abandonment. This woman has put her life in my hands," said Maran, who said she may appeal. "She has a minor child for whom she is terrified."
The ruling delayed Pearl Gosnell's plan to ask Lerner to lower her $1 million bail. Both Gosnells have been in custody since her arrest two months ago, so their 13-year-old daughter is living with a neighbor, Maran said. Kermit Gosnell is ineligible for bail because of the murder charges.
Several hurdles remain before Pearl Gosnell will get her bail hearing. She first faces an asset hearing March 30 to see if she qualifies for a court-appointed lawyer. According to Maran, a judge overseeing a malpractice lawsuit in the patient's death has frozen the couple's assets, including a home at the New Jersey shore. Prosecutors challenge that assertion and believe Pearl Gosnell has enough money to retain another lawyer.
Prosecutors said Gosnell took in more than $1 million a year at his West Philadelphia clinic, described in the grand jury report as a filthy, macabre office where staff performed late-term abortions when other clinics wouldn't. Authorities say he let his untrained staff, including a high school student, administer anesthesia and help perform abortions, and that he freely distributed painkillers to other patients.
Lerner asked Maran if her jailhouse conversations with Kermit Gosnell ever ventured beyond the issue of his finances. A different judge had admonished Gosnell for chatting with a reporter in the courtroom at his arraignment.
"Dr. Gosnell is somebody who likes to talk," she said. "I have had to shut him down."