By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A Philadelphia doctor was found guilty on Monday of murdering three babies during abortions at a clinic serving low-income women in a case that cast a national spotlight on the controversial practice of late-term abortions.
Dr. Kermit Gosnell, 72, who ran the now-shuttered Women's Medical Society Clinic, faces the possibility of the death penalty. The case focused on whether the infants were born alive and then killed.
He was accused of delivering live babies during late-term abortions and then deliberately severing their spinal cords.
Gosnell, wearing a maroon shirt and red tie, was stoic as the foreman read the verdicts. One woman on the jury cried.
After the jury was dismissed, prosecutor Joanne Pescatore threw her arms around a police officer who was a crime scene investigator at the clinic and sobbed.
The trial, which anti-abortion advocates had complained was being ignored by the media because of a bias in favor of abortion rights, was punctuated by graphic testimony.
Witness testimony described the babies as born breathing, moving and making sounds. Testimony also depicted a filthy clinic, and prosecutors called it a "house of horrors."
The jury heard five weeks of testimony in Common Pleas Court in Philadelphia and deliberated for 10 days.
Gosnell also was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the case of Karnamaya Mongar, 41, of Virginia, who died from a drug overdose after going to him for an abortion.
He also was found guilty of performing 21 abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy at his clinic, which served mostly low-income women in a largely black community. It is legal in Pennsylvania to abort a fetus up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy.
The verdicts come as late-term abortion has become a hot-button issue in a number of statehouses this year.
Nine states ban abortions after 20 weeks, according to the pro-choice organization NARAL. Other states recently put new restrictions on abortions, with Arkansas banning them at 12 weeks and North Dakota at six weeks.
Most abortions, 92 percent, are performed before 14 weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 1.3 percent are performed beyond 20 weeks.
In his instructions to the jury, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey Minehart said state law defines a live baby as one that is fully expelled from the mother and showing signs of life such as breathing, heart beat or movement.
If a baby shows those signs, he told the jury: "That baby is a human being."
Gosnell also was convicted of infanticide and conspiracy in the babies' deaths.
In addition, he was found guilty of 211 counts of failing to comply with a state law that requires a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion is performed. Each of those 211 counts carries the possibility of up to one year in prison.
Afterward, Gosnell was taken from the courthouse manacled and clad in a green prison uniform. He has been in jail since his arrest in January 2011.
"He is disappointed, and he is upset," defense attorney Jack McMahon said.
Jury members were whisked away in a van following the trial. The same seven-woman, five-man panel will return to court on Tuesday to decide if Gosnell will face the death penalty or life in prison on the three counts of first-degree murder on which he was convicted.
The jury cleared Gosnell of one charge of first-degree murder related to one of the babies he was accused of killing.
Being convicted of three counts of first-degree murder is considered an aggravating circumstance, which prosecutors could argue merits the death penalty, said William Brennan, a high-profile defense attorney in Philadelphia.
Mitigating circumstances that the defense could cite as a reason to spare Gosnell include his age of 72 and the fact that he has no previous criminal record, Brennan said.
McMahon said he was considering putting Gosnell on the witness stand during the penalty phase.
The jury earlier in the day said it was deadlocked on two counts, without specifying which ones, but the judge ordered them to resume deliberations.
Gosnell's defense had claimed there was no evidence the babies were alive after they were aborted and that any noise or movement would have been involuntary spasms.
A clinic worker testified that Gosnell had cut the spinal cords of babies born breathing, including one she said the doctor had described as "big enough to walk me to the bus stop."
Anti-abortion advocates hailed the verdict as evidence that laws restricting abortions must be strengthened.
"The guilty verdict on charges of killing babies following abortion shows that the law recognizes a point at which the 'right to choose' must yield to the right to life, and also shows that abortionists don't know where that point is," said Frank Pavone, the director of Priests for Life, a group that opposes abortion.
Abortion rights groups said Gosnell was an aberration and the case underscored the need for women to have access to safe and legal abortions.
"The jury has punished Kermit Gosnell for his appalling crimes," said Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
"We must reject misguided laws that would limit women's options and force them to seek treatment from criminals like Kermit Gosnell," he said.
Eight other defendants have pleaded guilty to a variety of charges and are in jail awaiting sentencing. They include Gosnell's wife, Pearl, a cosmetologist who helped perform abortions.
(Additional reporting by Daniel Kelley, Barbara Goldberg and Atossa Araxia Abrahamian; Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Sofina Mirza-Reid, John Wallace, Phil Berlowitz, Richard Chang and Andrew Hay)