WITH DR. KERMIT Gosnell incarcerated for life, the lingering question in many minds is why a soft-spoken, highly educated man turned into a monster. How did he morph from a lifesaver to a life-taker - a "predator," in the words of the jury foreman?

I ask the man who has known Gosnell intimately for 2 1/2 years - his defender, his spokesman, his attorney, the man who built his defense.

Away from the press whirlpool and in the calm of his Center City office, Jack McMahon looks me in the eye and says Gosnell isn't that guy. Gosnell stands convicted of killing babies, but veteran lawyer McMahon insists that Gosnell didn't kill babies.

I am as disgusted with Gosnell as you are, but I listen.

McMahon agrees that Gosnell did kill and dispose of fetuses, and "occasionally" performed abortions after 24 weeks - which is illegal in Pennsylvania - and that his clinic wasn't always in "tip-top shape." That's an understatement, according to the prosecution.

Babies A, C and D - for whose deaths Gosnell was found guilty of first-degree murder - were not born alive, McMahon says. They had been poisoned in the womb by digoxin, a lethal but legal drug. That disgusts me, too.

The "objective, scientific evidence" showed that "they were not born alive," McMahon says, "therefore there was no homicide." McMahon truly believes that "killing moving, live babies is not consistent with [Gosnell's] personality."

Although McMahon succeeded in winning on five other counts, one was enough to convict Gosnell, and the state won three.

Long before the trial began, I ran into McMahon on Walnut Street and told him that defending Gosnell would be a tough task.

He said that I had heard only one side, and that the press was killing Gosnell, which was true. McMahon was confident that when he told the other side, things would change.

His defense stood on two legs: the fetuses were dead, and the "House of Horrors" was not as portrayed. In his closing argument, McMahon used photos introduced by the government to prove that the West Philadelphia clinic was "not a macabre dungeon."

To little avail.

Without dispute, Gosnell's standards deteriorated over the years - having outdated or inoperable equipment and hiring unqualified staff. Part of the fault lies with a lack of "external monitoring," McMahon says.

"When you have a guy running a clinic for 17 years and [he] never had one visit from any government agency," it's understandable if he gets "lackadaisical," McMahon says.

That sounds a little like he's blaming the state.

"No, I'm not blaming the state," he starts, then corrects himself. "In a way I am. But I'm not blaming the state for Kermit Gosnell's actions. He's responsible for his own actions. I'm not saying the state encouraged him to do these things."

But the absence of oversight resulted in lower standards. At a news conference Wednesday, D.A. Seth Williams also ripped the state Health Department for failing to inspect the clinic for 17 years.

Oversight is helpful, sure, I tell McMahon, but he has internal standards, as do I. Where were Gosnell's? Some jurors believed that Gosnell's actions showed that money motivated him more than medicine.

Gosnell's " 'internal barometer' was that he was good at what he did, he got the job done, and he got the job done for an urban population" at a price they could afford, says McMahon.

Is that Gosnell's rationalization for some of his conduct?

"Yes," McMahon answers.

Gosnell will have the rest of his life to think about that. I will be thinking about where the hell the Health Department was.