"When we met him in prison, he looked like he'd just come off the 18th hole on a golf course."
The man Irish journalist Phelim McAleer is describing, is former West Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell, who in 2013 was convicted of three murders when he used scissors to cut the spines of three babies delivered after illegal late term abortions.
"He was very relaxed, very erudite. He's traveled, and he loves to tell you that. He's been to the Met. He listens to opera. He's the local doctor. Many of the people in the clinic called him, 'uncle.' He's avuncular."
Gosnell also received a conviction of involuntary manslaughter for giving his patient Karnamaya Mongar a fatal overdose of an anesthetic.
He's the subject of a new film that McAleer and his wife, Ann McElhinney, have co-produced and co-written, Gosnell: The Trial of America's Biggest Serial Killer. It opens today in Little Rock. Earl Billings plays the bad doctor, while Dean Cain plays the detective to brought him to justice and director Nick Searcy (best known for Justified) plays Gosnell's defense attorney.
Most serial killers don't play classical piano or have degrees in medicine, but McAleer says the title of the movie fits because Gosnell demonstrated many traits we associate with Charles Manson or Jeffrey Dahmer.
"He's a classic serial killer. He kept trophies. He kept files. He had babies' feet in jars. He kept bodies down in his basement. He said it was because he had an argument with his waste disposal company, but he never produced any evidence of that.
"In one of the chapters in the book (Gosnell -- The Untold Story of America's Most Prolific Serial Killer), we have a classic definition of a serial killer, and he met it almost to a 'T.' He's kind of like a cross between Jack the Ripper and Manson, in that he had a group of followers. It had a cult-like feeling where he took wounded people -- drug addicts, people who were sexually abused, addicts of various kinds -- and brought them into his world and had them doing his work for him."
The film and the crime scene footage that rolls during the closing credits show a facility that would have taxed the imagination of Edgar Allen Poe. Cats roamed free throughout the clinic, and fleas infested his basement.
Gosnell's carelessness violated several medical basics and would not be tolerated in legal clinics.
"He was keeping the ER rooms in Philadelphia very, very busy," McAleer says. "People were turning up with infections. Some of them were turning up with sexually transmitted diseases because they'd been reusing instruments. And, they were turning up dead, as well.
"A lot of the people around him were unqualified. Most of them were. They hadn't even graduated high school in some cases. He trained them. His chief anesthesiologist started work at (age) 15. He trained her for 20 minutes, and then she administered all the anesthetics to all the women. He told them it was OK. As a doctor in the community, they accepted it."
The film and book reveal that traditional partisan labels aren't necessarily applicable with Gosnell's crimes. A quirk in Pennsylvania politics allowed Gosnell to practice for years before authorities finally arrested him. He's now serving a life sentence.
"It was a Republican who started this. The Republican governor, Tom Ridge (who later served as Secretary of Homeland Security), ran as a pro-choice Republican in Pennsylvania. Until then, abortion clinics had to be inspected every year. When he came into power as a pro-choice Republican, he asked his lawyers to look at the law again, and they said that law that says every year doesn't mean every year. He stopped all inspections, and that just allowed Gosnell to go on a killing spree," McAleer recalls.
The journalist whose work has also appeared in The Economist, The Irish Times and the Sunday Times says that it helped that he and McElhinney approached the story as outsiders to America.
"Not being American, it meant we weren't steeped in political punditry or steeped in talking points," he says. "We didn't have a set script in our head. I listened to (Sen.) Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke debate the other night. It was so canned, you can almost write them yourself with the questions and the responses. We weren't steeped in that. We had a fresh perspective. I think the film reflects that. People in the pro-life movement say they've never seen anything like it. And they're right. It's not the 'will I have an abortion or won't I have an abortion movie' that you often see in this realm."
Law & Order
McAleer and McElhinney have produced and directed documentaries like FrackNation and Mine Your Own Business, but for Gosnell, they teamed with a screenwriter who wrote the Clint Eastwood thriller True Crime and the Michael Douglas vehicle Don't Say a Word. They also outsourced the directing to Searcy. The footage from Gosnell's clinic is already gruesome, so it's easy to wonder why they didn't make another documentary. After all, the two had already interviewed Gosnell himself from prison.
"I think we wanted a wider audience. You always want a wider audience for your work, and documentaries -- they're becoming more popular and all that, but still it's a limited audience. Very often people don't want to watch a documentary, but they want to watch a crime drama. That's what this is: It's a courtroom drama. It's like a Law & Order episode, only it's a movie," McAleer says. "This is a crime story. It's not an activist story. We didn't want to write a political screed. We don't want to preach to people. We wanted to tell a crime story. We're both crime journalists. And that's how we came into this story. I'm not saying it didn't affect our thinking, but going in we realized this is a crime story, and it needed to be a crime story, not a political story."
With all the research he' has done on the subject, it's tempting ask McAleer if he has any idea of what might have led the now 77-year-old Gosnell to what is likely to be his death in prison.
"I'm not a psychiatrist, but he may have a disorder," he says. "He's not mentally ill. He refused to allow his lawyers to put that defense forward. He believes he's innocent. He believes history will vindicate him. He's training hard in prison because when he is released, he wants to run a triathlon. He believes vindication is imminent."
MovieStyle on 10/12/2018
Print Headline: Gosnell is a crime story, not a political story