Sun, Sep 09, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Owners of nursing home acquitted of Katrina drownings

AP , ST FRANCISVILLE, LOUISIANA

The owners of a nursing home where 35 patients died in Hurricane Katrina's flood waters were acquitted of negligent homicide and cruelty charges for not evacuating the facility as the storm approached.

Patients drowned -- some in their beds -- as the monster hurricane swept through the area on Aug. 29, 2005. Katrina killed more than 1,600 people in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Mabel and Sal Mangano, the husband-and-wife owners of St Rita's Nursing Home just outside of New Orleans, had faced 35 counts of negligent homicide and 24 counts of cruelty to the elderly or infirm.

They were the only people to face criminal charges stemming directly from Hurricane Katrina. More than 30 lawsuits have been filed against them by patients injured at the nursing home and the families of people who died there.

When the verdicts were read, Mabel Mangano buried her face in her husband's shoulder. The victims' family and friends -- all wearing black, some wearing buttons with a picture of a person who died -- sat stoically. None cried.

Yolanda Hubert, whose 72-year-old mother, Zerelda Delatte, was among the victims, said she traveled from Texas to attend the trial.

"The jury may not have found them guilty, but our savior says they are. When they face our maker, they'll have to answer then," she said. "They still have never said they were sorry. They haven't said `I'm sorry I let your mother drown like a rat.' They're guilty as hell," she said.

Prosecutors said the Manganos should have evacuated the home, but defense lawyers said levee failures and a government that never called a mandatory evacuation are to blame.

"I'm very gratified that the two-year ordeal they've been through is finally over," defense attorney John Reed said.

Assistant Attorney General Burton Guidry read a statement from his boss, Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti: "I feel for the victims of this tragedy, and my heart goes out to them. I hope they will be able to put this behind them."

The trial lasted three weeks. The prosecution put on 40 witnesses, including Governor Kathleen Blanco, who testified that she left the decision on mandatory evacuations to local officials. St Bernard Parish never called a mandatory evacuation.

The Manganos have said the area had never flooded in the 20 years St Rita's was in operation, and defense attorney Jim Cobb said that was the basis for their decision to ride out the storm.

"We're talking frail people, people with special needs, people who would be at risk during an evacuation," Cobb said before the trial began. "The Manganos thought they were saving lives by sheltering in place."

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