Robert Rho, M.D., walked away from his family and stood on the top step of the State Supreme Court in Queens, hands in his pockets and looking into the distance as his wife, twelve-year-old son, and elderly parents spoke somberly among themselves a few feet away. Moments later he would plead guilty to criminally negligent homicide, putting to rest an almost two-year battle with the family of Jamie Lee Morales, 30, who bled to death after Rho botched her late-term abortion during the summer of 2016. In these last moments outside, though, he is sticking to his story that he did nothing irresponsible and that Morales’s death was an “unfortunate medical accident.”
“I did a medical procedure, and the patient unfortunately had a complication,” he tells me flatly. “That happens with this sort of procedure.” Why then was he criminally charged, an unusual development in medical-malpractice cases, which are usually settled civilly?
“Because it’s abortion,” he says without missing a beat. “It’s a hot political topic.”
This is liberal New York, though, and the details of Rho’s case combined with his shady reputation do not help his image.
Jamie Lee Morales bled to death the evening of July 9, 2016, hours after visiting Rho’s now-shuttered clinic, Liberty Women’s Health Care, in Flushing, Queens. Prosecutors said she had been turned away by Planned Parenthood and another Queens abortion clinic, where she was told that, 24 to 26 weeks’ pregnant, she was too far along for an abortion.
Abortion is illegal after 24 weeks in New York. Babies born earlier, at 22 weeks, have survived.
Rho, however, agreed to do the extremely late procedure, and sped through it in one day instead of the standard two to three. During the operation he tore her cervix, pierced her uterine wall, and slashed her uterine artery, subsequently “failing to provide appropriate and timely medical attention,” according to a statement from Queens district attorney Richard A. Brown.
Morales was “bleeding profusely” in the recovery room, forcing Rho to bring her back in for a second surgical procedure to try to patch up the damage. Afterward, she was allowed to leave the clinic with her sister even though she had collapsed and was disoriented. On the ride to her sister’s home in the Bronx, she fell off the backseat, unresponsive. She was rushed to a Bronx hospital where she was treated for vaginal bleeding and given six units of blood. The efforts were unsuccessful, however, and Morales was pronounced dead later that night.
Rho was arrested several months later, on October 11. A Queens grand jury indicted him for second-degree manslaughter. It is unclear why he was not also charged with performing an abortion past the legal limit, but such charges are not common in New York. He was released on $400,000 bail.
The dramatic trial this past May saw the jury locked in an impasse for three days. They finally reached a verdict, but just as Judge Gregory Lasak was about to read it, Rho’s private lawyer, high-power mob-defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman, jumped up and asked to take a plea bargain that the assistant district attorney, Brad Leventhal, had previously offered.
The last-minute deal meant that the more serious charge of reckless manslaughter, which would have seen Rho locked up for five to 15 years had he been convicted, was tossed out. However, now he had to plead guilty to the lesser charge of criminally negligent homicide and admit in front of the victim’s family that he had behaved badly.
The 53-year-old abortionist coughed up a reluctant admission of guilt and on June 26 was sentenced to prison for 16 months to four years. Lichtman claimed on Tuesday that his client could be released in under a year.
The prosecution painted a picture of a greedy and careless medical professional who cut corners and took risks at his sloppy clinic to save time and money. He had rushed Morales out of his office because he wanted to get back to seeing other patients, prosecutors argued. They also questioned whether he had forged her anesthesia record. Witnesses added that the state had investigated Rho in the past for hiring assistants with no medical training and for performing procedures improperly.
“It’s about greed and arrogance,” the assistant district attorney said. “Jaime Morales bled to death because this defendant did nothing.”
The defense, on the other hand, came up with colorful theories for why Morales bled so much before she died, pointing out that she had lupus, a condition that causes softness of the tissue that could lead to tearing.
At one point, according to viewers of the trial that day, Lichtman declared the case a “modern-day lynching” of Rho given his Asian heritage, an apparent attempt to sway the largely minority jury, even though most of its members were not Asian. “Yes,” Rho responded immediately when asked whether he agreed with his lawyer’s characterization.
New York has not seen an abortionist criminally charged for botching an abortion since 1995. That case was prosecuted by the same district attorney prosecuting Rho’s.
The antsy abortionist almost caused a mistrial when he attempted to tamper with the jury, approaching one of its members near the court’s security checkpoint to try to give her new information that he hoped would sway her. The judge interviewed each juror separately, to determine whether he or she could remain unbiased.
Asked if he would have done anything differently, Rho harped on Morales’s lupus condition and said he simply would not have taken her as a patient.
New York has not seen an abortionist criminally charged for botching an abortion since 1995, when Dr. David Benjamin was convicted of murder after he tore a patient’s uterus during a procedure, causing her to later bleed to death. That case was prosecuted by the same district attorney prosecuting Rho’s.
“After this death I voluntarily surrendered my license, closed my medical practice, and I am not planning on practicing medicine ever,” Rho said, adding that he would retire. During his 23-year career as an abortionist, he performed approximately 40,000 abortions, according to Lichtman, who sees his client as a “regular guy.”
Lichtman told Buzzfeed in November that the case “absolutely should have been a civil matter.”
“This isn’t somebody who’s known as some kind of miscreant doctor who becomes a butcher,” Lichtman said. “He’s well respected and credentialed.”
But Rho is not respected by everyone. Nicknamed the “designer vagina” doctor by the press because of his specialty in vaginal rejuvenation, the abortionist is no stranger to lawsuits and has been sued three times before for medical reasons and twice for sexual harassment.
One of his receptionists sued Rho in 2011 for demanding physical contact with her while he was married and pressuring her to come to Atlantic City with him. Rho was cleared. A medical assistant also sued him for trying to bribe her with cosmetic procedures and pushing her up against a wall more than once to “hug and kiss her against her will.”
A female patient of Rho’s sued him in 2008 for botching her second-trimester abortion, causing her to give birth to a brain-damaged, premature baby. He was also sued in 2005 for causing severe bleeding during a tubal-pregnancy abortion, and again in 2009 for lacerating a woman’s labia during a cosmetic procedure.
“Everyone has to suffer,” Rho said before returning to trial, back in the spring. “My family, the patient’s family. It’s really a tragedy.”
Now that the end is near, what will the disgraced abortionist do?
“With my life? Take care of my family,” he says, looking at the ground.