Nursing Home Owners Acquitted in Katrina Deaths

Sal and Mabel Mangano, owners of the Louisiana nursing home where 35 residents died in flooding from Hurricane Katrina, with attorney James Cobb, right. The Manganos face 35 counts of negligent homicide, and, for each of the surviving residents, 24 counts of cruelty.
Sal and Mabel Mangano, owners of the Louisiana nursing home where 35 residents died in flooding from Hurricane Katrina, with attorney James Cobb, right. The Manganos face 35 counts of negligent homicide, and, for each of the surviving residents, 24 counts of cruelty. (By Tim Mueller -- Associated Press)

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 8, 2007

ST. FRANCISVILLE, La., Sept. 7 -- The day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Sal and Mabel Mangano waffled, then decided against evacuating the mom-and-pop nursing home they owned.

By morning, 35 of their frailest patients would be dead, drowned in their wheelchairs and beds by the storm surge.

On Friday night, after four hours of deliberations, a jury acquitted the Manganos of negligent homicide, charges that could have put them in prison for life. The case raised broader questions about who, if anyone, deserves to be punished for the deaths in Katrina's deadly flooding.

Though numerous government agencies have been faulted for the disaster, the Manganos were the first and only people to be tried in a criminal court for any of the countless mistakes of planning that led to 1,800 deaths in the flooding that followed the storm late in the summer of 2005.

After the verdict was read, Sal, 67, and Mabel, 64, hugged and sobbed. The Manganos, who still face civil lawsuits in the deaths, declined to comment on their acquittal.

"Thank you so very much," Mabel told a juror, and then the two embraced.

"I went back and forth for sure, but when it came down to it, the Manganos were not criminals," the juror, Kim Maxwell, 46, a secretary at a power plant, said later. "I just wanted to hug them."

Louisiana Attorney General Charles C. Foti Jr., who had pushed forward with the controversial case, said in a statement: "I feel for the victims of this tragedy. . . . I hope they will be able to find some peace."

Voluminous engineering studies, congressional hearings and a host of other reports have put the blame for the Katrina deaths on government officials.

The breachings and overtoppings in the flood defenses have been blamed on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Many people pointed at the state and local governments -- and especially their leaders, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) -- for the chaotic evacuation effort, which left behind many of the poor and infirm. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA Director Michael Brown and President Bush were castigated for slow rescue and relief efforts.

But of all the potential villains, only Sal and Mabel Mangano have been tried on criminal charges.

"Sal and Mabel are the only two people on the planet charged with anything," defense attorney James Cobb noted in closing arguments.


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