New Orleans Nursing Home Owners on Trial

The owners of St. Rita's nursing home near New Orleans are on trial for negligent homicide in the deaths of 35 elderly residents left to drown in the wake of Hurricane Katrina two years ago. But defense lawyers plan to put the botched federal response to Katrina on trial.

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The owners of a nursing home near New Orleans are on trial, accused in the deaths of elderly residents who perished following Hurricane Katrina. State prosecutors say the owners of St. Rita's failed to heed evacuation orders, leaving 35 residents to drown in their beds and wheelchairs.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports defense attorneys plan to put the government's botched response to Katrina on trial.

CARRIE KAHN: Salvador and Mabel Mangano, both in their 60s, sat quietly, holding hands as a court reporter read out loud the names of each of the 35 patients who drowned at their nursing home outside New Orleans. Relatives of the victims, also present in court, wept silently.

Images of the elderly patients, many who died in their beds and wheelchairs, were some of the grimmest of Katrina's devastation. In hopes of finding an impartial jury, the trial has been moved 100 miles north to St. Francisville.

Prosecutor Paul Knight took less than an hour to outline the state's case to jurors. Knight said by all accounts the Manganos ran a clean nursing home, but he said they acted criminally when they ignored warnings and chose to ride out the storm's expected fury.

Raising his voice, Knight said that Katrina was an act of God. But he stressed God did not send her without warning.

Loyola law professor Dane Ciolino says the state will have a tough job proving the Manganos's negligence was criminal.

Professor DANE CIOLINO (Loyola University Law School): You are essentially arguing that there's been a culpable omission, that the defendants didn't do something that a reasonable person should have done.

KAHN: Ciolino says it's a hard case to make when tens of thousands of people in New Orleans also didn't evacuate. But prosecutor Knight told jurors that a reasonable person in charge of so many frail patients would have heeded the warnings. He hopes to introduce evidence showing how three other area nursing homes were evacuated with only one casualty.

Knight also wants jurors to watch news coverage in the days leading up to Katrina's landfall to show there was ample warning.

Dan Zimmerman, an attorney for several New Orleans-based TV stations, is fighting to keep the media out of the trial.

Mr. DAN ZIMMERMAN (Attorney): In particular, the meteorologists, who are basically celebrities in the area, are going to be asked to testify on behalf of the state in a criminal trial. And that's not the role the media ought to be playing.

KAHN: In addition, Knight said he has evidence that the Manganos refused an offer of two buses to evacuate. He also suggested the couple, who in the year prior to Katrina earned nearly a million dollars, didn't want to spend money on a costly evacuation.

But according to defense attorney John Reed, the Manganos were anything but calloused business people. He said the couple personally cared for the residents and ultimately decided it was best for the frail patients to shelter in place than to be put through a stressful evacuation.

Reed told jurors that if they were to judge the couple's flaws, they must also judge the government, starting with the Army Corps of Engineers, who built levees that couldn't withstand the storm, to state and local authorities who never directly told the Manganos to evacuate. Reed said that if there is any crime here, it's that this government that served us so badly is now turning on its own people.

Law professor Ciolino says it's common for the defense to find someone else to blame.

Prof. CIOLINO: What they're essentially doing is putting the state on trial. Usually, it's a distraction, but in this particular case it does seem to be relevant.

KAHN: Defense lawyers have subpoenaed several local and state officials, including Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco. But despite the government's failings during Katrina, Shirley Morales says she blames the Manganos for her mother-in-law's death.

Ms. SHIRLEY MORALES: Because it was mandatory to get them out of there. And I don't see why they didn't. I'm looking for justice.

KAHN: The trial is expected to last at least a month.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, St. Francisville, Louisiana.

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