Two key figures in one of Philadelphia’s most notorious modern-day criminal cases engaged in a lively discussion on the Delaware campus recently about media attention, its impact on juries and the role of gag orders in court cases.
Defense attorney Jack J. McMahon, who represented abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, and Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart, who presided over Gosnell’s 2013 murder trial in the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court were speakers at the Advanced Litigation Skills symposium held Friday, March 21. The event drew more than 250 people to the Ruby R. Vale Moot Courtroom on the Delaware campus. Gosnell is serving life terms for the murders of three babies born alive during botched late-term procedures.
The symposium will become an annual event. It was presented by the law school and its Taishoff Advocacy, Technology and Public Service Institute
under the direction of Professor Jules Epstein
. Participants also heard presentations on the use of technology in the courtroom by Visiting Professor Richard K. Herrmann
, witness impeachment by speakers John Dodas, Sam Silver and Mary DeFusco and how to effectively prepare expert witnesses by former Judge Joseph R. Slights III
. Widener University Professor Suzanne Mannes also spoke about cognitive science in the courtroom and Epstein closed out the day with a talk on evidence.
McMahon repeatedly expressed frustration over a gag order put in place early in the Gosnell case. It was filed shortly after prosecutors conducted a news conference where Gosnell’s medical office was described as a “house of horrors” and “barbaric,” McMahon said. Under the gag order, he could not respond.
“I should have been allowed to explain why it wasn’t a house of horrors,” McMahon said. “The damage, in my opinion, was already done. It was left to fester for two years, when jury selection began.”
That course of events influenced his decision to deliver an opening statement calling the case against Gosnell a ‘racist witch hunt,’ McMahon said.
“It was right, when you’ve been beaten up for two years, to come out of the box swinging and attract the attention your way,” he said.
Minehart discussed his efforts to protect the integrity of the jury. He made sure the court system bought jurors lunch each day, so they didn’t have to venture past media throngs to find food. They were brought to court in vans, and he recalled a time when he exited the courthouse walking in one direction to lure the media after him so jurors could be loaded into the vans and driven away.
McMahon also stridently maintained a sequestration order should have been put in place – an idea Minehart said had merit. But the judge said sequestration was “an incredibly expensive proposition.”
“Unfortunately I couldn’t get the sequestration order,” he said.