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A jury in Louisiana has acquitted the owners of a New Orleans area nursing home of negligent homicide in the deaths of 35 elderly patients who drowned during Hurricane Katrina. Prosecutors said that Salvador and Mabel Mangano were reckless for not evacuating the elderly patients as Katrina roared toward the state. The defense countered that the government was to blame and successfully put the botched response to Katrina on trial.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: It's been almost two years since Salvador and Mabel Mangano were arrested for the deaths of 35 patients at their suburban New Orleans nursing home. Yesterday, the couple, both in their 60s, tightly embraced and wept as the not-guilty verdicts were read to a packed courtroom.

Outside, Mabel Mangano could only say how thankful she was their long nightmare was over.

Ms. MABEL MANGANO (Owner, St. Rita's Nursing Home): Everybody has been wonderful to us, and thank you all.

KAHN: Defense lawyer Jim Cobb said justice was served.

Mr. JAMES COBB (Defense Lawyer): The overwhelming weight the evidence was that Sal and Mabel, just like everybody else, did the very best that they could under incredible circumstances. And for the state to single out just these two folks and no one else, this jury felt was not fair.

KAHN: Cobb had argued the Manganos were scapegoated by a government that failed its residents during Hurricane Katrina. Cobb said responsibility for the patients' deaths rest with the Army Corps of Engineers, which built faulty levees and with state and local officials who never gave clear evacuation orders.

If the Manganos had been convicted, they would have been the only two people in Louisiana held criminally responsible for any of the more than fourteen hundred deaths in the state due to Katrina.

State prosecutor Julie Cullen said she was disappointed jurors did not hold the Manganos responsible for the decision to shelter in place.

Ms. JULIE CULLEN (Assistant Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General, Louisiana): But we do - we accept the jury's verdict. And it was a difficult case. The victims' voices were heard. That was our role, that was our job, and we feel we accomplished that.

KAHN: Prosecutors had called more than 40 witnesses, including Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. They said the Manganos ignored widespread warnings and offers of help in the days before Katrina made landfall.

Prosecutor Paul Knight told jurors the couple stuck their heads in the sand, their tails in the air, and hope that Mother Nature didn't kick them in the butt. Knight said the couple's gamble backfired, and instead of assuming responsibility, the Manganos blamed everyone but themselves for the tragic loss of 35 lives.

The defense called just five witnesses, and the Manganos did not testify. That angered Dale Sanderson whose mother drowned at St. Rita's nursing home. She said Mabel Mangano never showed any remorse. Sanderson was inconsolable after the jury's quick verdict and was helped out of the courtroom.

Ms. DALE SANDERSON (Resident, Louisiana): Our own loved ones, who we adored, if we would still have them, still have them, and have one breath or two breaths or maybe 10 breaths, and they would still be there that we could hold their hands as they die.

KAHN: Relatives of the victims, many dressed in black, expressed similar outrage. Some shouted profanities at the Manganos' son as he walked out of the courthouse.

Mabel and Sal Mangano may have been acquitted of criminal charges in the deaths of their nursing home patients but the couple still faces multiple civil lawsuits. And their lawyer says no decision has been made whether the Manganos have plans to open another nursing home.

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

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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