PHILADELPHIA (CN) - It was unfair to join the murder trial of a late-term abortion doctor with that of an employee accused of far less gruesome crimes, a Pennsylvania appeals court ruled.
The ruling Monday from the Pennsylvania Superior Court calls for a new trial of Eileen O'Neil, throwing out the sentence she received in 2013 alongside her former boss, Dr. Kermit Gosnell, a late-term abortionist convicted on multiple counts of first-degree murder.
Though O'Neil had completed medical school and completed a residency, she was not licensed to practice medicine, and she was never alleged to have been involved in the killing of newborn babies, the ruling states.
While other employees of Gosnell's business, the Women's Medical Society Clinic, pleaded guilty to murder or other charges, only O'Neil and Gosnell found the charges against them at trial.
A court nevertheless refused to sever the conspiracy and perjury charges against O'Neil from the capital murder case against Gosnell.
Writing for a three-member panel Monday, Judge Mary Jane Bowes found no precedent "supports the conclusion that a joint trial is appropriate for a defendant charged with multiple homicides and a person charged with crimes wholly unrelated to those homicides."
The trial lasted nearly two months, but "the testimony against [O'Neil] would have consisted of no more than two or three days of the trial," the 30-page opinion states.
Bowes emphasized that the evidence presented against "Gosnell was shocking and highly disturbing."
"It is difficult to even read the cold record without having a visceral reaction to what transpired in Gosnell's abortion clinic," she added. "This overwhelming and appalling evidence of the killing of live born babies certainly would not have been admissible in a trial solely against appellant [O'Neil]. The prosecutor himself, a trained legal professional, could not separate the evidence against Gosnell and appellant. Permeating throughout this trial was the idea that appellant could not have been so blind and naïve not to have noticed what was occurring one floor below. The trial court during sentencing even remarked, 'The one aspect of Ms. O'Neill's case that does stun me is that someone with so much education could stay at a place like this, could participate in any way and not be shocked to the extent that they would either leave or call the authorities.' The court continued, stating, that in going 'to trial in a case that carries the horrors of the Gosnell trial, a lot of that emotion is going to come your way, a lot of that anger.'"
The ruling vacates the sentence against O'Neil of six to 24 months, finding it "one of the exceptionally rare instances where the evidence against one co-defendant was so inflammatory and inherently prejudicial that jury instructions were insufficient."
Indeed "we have been unable to uncover a remotely analogous case where one defendant was jointly tried with a co-defendant, whom the commonwealth charged with a host of far more serious offenses, and the offenses that were the same or similar were entirely unrelated to the more serious crimes," Bowes wrote.
O'Neil's duties at the clinic reportedly involved helping children and the elderly. Prosecutors charged that she knew about Gosnell's actions and did not report them.
Gosnell is serving life without parole.
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