Peter M. Semel, prosecutor who handled 1979 mercy-killing case, dies

Peter M. Semel, a retired attorney and former government prosecutor who sought to convict a nurse in a 1979 mercy-killing case, died of cancer Aug. 24 at Gilchrist Hospice Care in Towson. The Bolton Hill resident was 73.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., he was the son of Abraham Semel, a textile merchant, and Frances Englander. He was a 1962 graduate of Hewlett High School, where he played tennis. He earned a bachelor’s degree at the Johns Hopkins University and was a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law.

He met his future wife, Mary Helfer, at a Psi Sigma Delta fraternity party. She was then a Goucher College student.

He taught at Baltimore City College while attending law school. He served as a law clerk to Judge Charles Harris of the old Baltimore Superior Court before joining the staff of the Baltimore City state’s attorney office. He prosecuted numerous homicide cases in the 1970s.

He and other legal investigators began a study into the deaths of four Maryland General Hospital patients who had been on respirators in an intensive-care unit. After the patents’ bodies had been exhumed and medical tests were conducted, a 24-year-old nurse, Mary Rose Robaczynski, was indicted in the deaths of a 48-year-old Northeast Baltimore man, Harry Gessner, and three others.

Her attorneys argued in pretrial motions that Maryland’s law defining death was too vague for a criminal case.

During the March 1979 trial, a Maryland General nursing supervisor testified that Ms. Robaczynski admitted that she had unhooked the oxygen supply respirator.

The case resulted in a 1979 mistrial because the jury members, who deliberated 20 hours and voted 10-2 in favor of acquittal, were confused over the 1972 Maryland legal definition of death. At the time, Maryland law defined death as the absence of a “spontaneous brain function.”

“Everybody agreed that what Mary did was wrong,” said Mr. Semel in a 1979 Washington Post article. “But the jury couldn’t decide whether he [Gessner] was dead or alive. It was the first time I ever had to try [a case] where I had to prove the victim was alive before he was dead.”

After the highly publicized trial ended, the state dropped charges against Ms. Robaczynski. The case became the basis of a play, “G.O.R.K.” and was performed at a Mount Vernon theater.

“Peter was bright and har-working,” said Howard Gersh, the retired city state’s attorney’s homicide unit chief. “The Maryland General case was unusual. Peter had deep feelings for the victims’ families. ... He talked to them at length before the bodies were exhumed, and of course they didn’t realize at that point that their loved ones may have been a homicide victim.”

Mr. Gersh also said, “Maryland’s law defining death changed as a result of this case.”

Mr. Semel later joined the U.S. attorney’s office for Maryland and handled numerous criminal cases. In 1991 won won a conviction against an Edgewood resident, Keith W. McCormick Jr. for kidnapping and other felonies related to the abduction and rape of a Goucher College student.

The Evening Sun reported of the trial and its victim, “Throughout his questioning of the victim on the witness stand, Semel stopped periodically to offer her drinks of water and asked if she was OK as he coaxed the emotional testimony from her that seemed to assure McCormick's conviction.”

U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett recalled, “Only shortly before, Peter’s son had died in a car crash and Peter was scheduled to be the lead prosecutor in the Goucher student case, which was an ugly case. He showed extraordinary courage and intellectual strength. I remember his closing arguments that day. Most of us were in awe. ”

Mr. Semel later established a private practice.

“As a criminal defense lawyer, he understood where people were coming from,” said a friend, attorney Stanley S. Fine. “He wanted the right thing to happen to help people.”

Mr. Semel retired in 2014.

Mr. Semel, a member of Beth Am Congregation, was an amateur photographer who submitted his works to The Baltimore Sun’s travel page.

Mr. Semel played tennis and was an active member of the Bolton Swim and Tennis Club. “He could make friends across generational lines,” said a friend, Andrew Lacovara. “He was also a real stickler for etiquette on the court.”

Services were held Sunday at Sol Levinson and Brothers.

Survivors, in addition to his wife of 50 years, a psychotherapist, include a daughter, Hilary Semel of New York City; a sister, Bernice Semel of Boca Raton, Fla.; and a grandson. His son, Alexander Ward Semel, died in 1991.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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