PHILADELPHIA – After twice balking at deals offered by federal prosecutors, Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell pleaded guilty Tuesday to trafficking in prescriptions for almost a million pills containing powerful narcotics.
What he could not do was admit he committed a crime.
For about 15 minutes, Gosnell verbally sparred with U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe as she tried to get him to admit he actually committed the crimes to which he was pleading guilty.
“That’s not what I asked you,” Rufe said as the 72-year-old physician squirmed and struggled to avoid saying he did what prosecution and defense lawyers agreed he did.
“This is not a nolo contendere plea,” Rufe said, referring to a plea where the defendant simply does not contest the charges.
“I understand it is not a nolo contendere plea,” Gosnell said, and then added: “Yes. I’m accepting responsibility for these acts.”
“And therefore,” the judge nudged, “you admit you are guilty of these crimes?”
Gosnell paused as if cornered and then said, “I plead guilty to these crimes.”
For Gosnell, the only advantage to the final plea agreement he formalized before Rufe was that it was on his terms.
Already serving three consecutive state life prison terms for killing infants born alive during illegal late-term abortions, Gosnell will never leave prison alive.
Rufe set sentencing for Oct. 4. Assistant U.S. Attorney Joan Burnes estimated Gosnell faces 24½ to 30 years in prison, based on federal sentencing guidelines.
Gosnell also agreed to forfeit at least $200,000 — income the government says was linked to the “pill mill.”
The forfeiture proved another sticking point, and Gosnell began an animated conversation with defense attorney Emily B. Cherniack that forced a 10-minute break in the hourlong hearing.
The problem once again appeared to be Gosnell’s effort to preserve his house for his wife, Pearl, and an adult son and teenage daughter who live there. Ultimately, Gosnell agreed to the forfeiture terms in the plea agreement.
For Gosnell and the law enforcement officials who prosecuted him, Tuesday’s guilty plea brought the case full circle.
It was a Feb. 18, 2010, drug raid on Gosnell’s Women’s Medical Society clinic at 3801 Lancaster Ave. that resulted in the discovery of more than 47 frozen fetal remains. That discovery triggered a Philadelphia grand jury probe that ended with murder charges against Gosnell and four employees, and illegal abortion counts against five others.
The federal charges against Gosnell involved the sale of almost a million pills containing the narcotic painkiller oxycodone and the generic version of the anti-anxiety drug Xanax.
Those two drugs and scripts for more than 19,000 ounces of codeine-based cough syrup — all coveted by addicts — were allegedly sold for cash out of the clinic from 2008 through January 2010 under cover of what Gosnell called his “pain management practice.”
Gosnell was indicted by a federal grand jury with three ex-employees, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office separately charged four other Gosnell workers.
All the federal defendants but Gosnell pleaded guilty. None has been sentenced in case their testimony was needed in Gosnell’s trial.
According to the indictment, Gosnell began selling prescriptions in 2008, writing several hundred bogus prescriptions a month. By January 2010, Gosnell was writing more than 2,300 scripts a month and was Pennsylvania’s third-largest prescriber of oxycodone.
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