Saturday, September 08, 2007

Not Guilty, Apparently

A six-member jury in St. Francisville, Louisiana decided yesterday that the owners of St. Rita's Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish (pictured at left), who saw 35 senior citizens die on their watch during Hurricane Katrina, are not guilty of negligent homicide. Salvador and Mabel Mangano did not evacuate their nursing home before the storm, and many of its residents drowned. According to today's New York Times,

Many of those who died were bedridden, trapped when the waters rose over coastal St. Bernard Parish after the hurricane passed through. The nursing home, St. Rita’s, was inundated, and many of those who survived floated to safety only because their mattresses were coated in plastic...

The defense tried to put the blame on the state and federal governments, saying no one would have died if the levees had not failed, if the state had ordered an evacuation or if officials had employed a plan to take charge of nursing homes in an emergency...

Defense lawyers portrayed the Manganos as compassionate and deeply concerned for their charges, hunkering down with residents and rescuing two dozen of them when water overtook the building. They did not evacuate out of concern that leaving would have been more traumatic for the frail residents, the lawyers said...

Prosecutors depicted the Manganos as greedy and negligent. One witness suggested that Ms. Mangano was concerned about the cost of an evacuation. Three other nursing homes in the parish evacuated residents, the prosecutors said, but the Manganos ignored urgent warnings broadcast as the storm bore down.

The Manganos, prosecutors said, barely had an evacuation plan — they had only a nine-passenger van that would have been inadequate. It was “reckless disregard,” Assistant Attorney General Paul Knight told the jury in his closing argument.

Maybe the Manganos are not guilty, but that sounds like a pretty weak defense to me. While it is true that governmental incompetence led to the neglect of the levees and the widespread destruction that followed, that's no excuse for personal neglect, as well. Following one person's stupidity with another results in more unjustifiable deaths, not a few unujustifiable deaths with a few justifiable ones on the side. Even if they didn't use it, the Manganos should have had an evacuation plan at the ready. The fact that they didn't smacks of neglect.

I don't mean to second guess the jury in this decision, but the Times does call this "the only trial to result from deaths in Hurricane Katrina". The verdict comes a little over a month after a Louisiana Grandy Jury declined to indict Dr. Anna Pou for committing mercy killings during the storm's aftermath at Memorial Medical Center. (I meant to blog about Pou, but never got around to it. Shame on me.) (On a side note, my doctor works in the Memorial office building, so I frequently saw the hospital during my three months in town, which started a year ago this week.) As with the Mangano verdict, I don't want to second guess Pou's Grandy Jury, because both juries saw far more evidence and heard far more arguments than I did. So perhaps these acquittals were indeed the right decision, but from the outside looking it, it looks like a lack of accountability. Unless you count political consequences, no one has been held accountable for the storm or its aftermath at the federal, state, or local levels, and now the private sector. We holler and scream that this was a man-made disaster--and it was--yet we punish no man. At least the Mangano trial put Governor Blanco on the stand, but alas, not as the defendant.

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