PHILADELPHIA—The court gallery at abortionist Kermit Gosnell’s murder trial was back to pre-Kirsten Powers days yesterday. After a spillover crowd on Monday for closing arguments by the defense and prosecution, only the usual media suspects dotted gap-toothed benches to watch Judge Jeffrey Minehart give formal instructions to the jury, prompting from him a self-deprecating remark about his popularity.
In contrast to the histrionics of Gosnell’s attorney, Jack McMahon, and the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Ed Cameron, there was little entertainment value in the avuncular guidance of the man who for two months had masterfully kept order with laconic “sustained” and “overruled” decrees. Now “you’re the fact finder,” Minehart told the seven women and five men who will decide the fate of a man accused of first-degree murder in the deaths of four babies, and third-degree murder of a Virginia woman, allegedly by drug overdose. The jury was told they may consult the judge during deliberations on matters of law, but not of fact.
The instructions were what you might expect: mostly “common sense.” In fact, Minehart used that phrase several times. The jury was told to be “fair and conscientious”; to remember the “presumption of innocence”; to bear in mind that “the Commonwealth [of Pennsylvania] has the burden of proof”; to wisely evaluate the credibility of each witness; to not be prejudiced, nor to decide on the basis of which lawyer they liked better; to not think about the fact that Gosnell didn’t take the stand in his own defense (which struck me as akin to the comical prohibition: “Do not think about pink elephants.”)
That old bugbear “reasonable doubt” was addressed again, a day after the defense and prosecution had each tried to bend the concept to do their bidding. Judge Minehart dispensed his peremptory view, invoking the similes of buying a car and getting engaged: You gather the facts and make the best-informed decision you can. You glean from the presented arguments and witnesses what a reasonable person would, he explained, adding, “This does not mean mathematical certainty.”
A couple of things interested me in what the judge deemed important enough to tell a jury as he sent them off to decide the guilt of a man and a woman (co-defendant Eileen O’Neill), and whether Kermit Gosnell should live or die. One is that this is no “science,” and Minehart said as much. When all is said and done, only God knows the perfect truth. (I say that, not Minehart.)
The other is that, although the jury was exhorted against letting prejudice get in the way of judgment, they were not exhorted against letting their humanity get in the way of judgment. That is to say, at no time were they urged to be Mister Spock-like. Minehart encouraged the full engagement of their human powers, not a conscious disassociation from them. Their task would involve observation, evaluation, discernment, common sense, experience, and a lifetime’s worth of rubbing shoulders with people. At one point, addressing the conspiracy charges, Minehart said, “You must be convinced that there was a conspiracy, that [Gosnell] shared the specific intent to kill.” What depths of ineffable human reckoning are summarized in the two-syllable word “convinced”!
Likewise, Minehart educated the jury on the legal definition of “malice,” explaining it circumscribes three mental states: intent to kill, or intent to inflict serious harm, or wanton and reckless disregard for high risk. First-degree murder, Minehart said, must be a finding that Gosnell’s killing was “willful, deliberate, and premeditated.”
And so, at the end of a very long day, a very human jury will pass judgment on two human beings, after being influenced for weeks by quite human lawyers, with the proceedings being brought to you daily by human reporters representing human and flawed media organs, to be read and interpreted by human readers, each with their own baggage. Out of it all, we pray, may the Lord bring glory to Himself, one way or another.