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.
The day before Katrina made landfall, Mabel Mangano, the administrator of the nursing home, was getting worried calls from relatives of her elderly residents: Shouldn't you evacuate? they asked. Mangano and staff members said an evacuation would be done "if necessary," and in preparation she called a nursing home in Baton Rouge, out of harm's way, to inquire about available beds.
But at some point, the Manganos aborted their evacuation efforts. Maybe it was because they feared the dangers of transporting their frail clientele, or maybe they were trying to avoid the expense -- they have never explained why publicly, and did not testify in their own defense.
On the day before Katrina, the Manganos, having stocked up on food, generators and medications, hunkered down at the nursing home in St. Bernard Parish with their son, his wife, the staff, a few of their children and 59 elderly clients.
When the levees broke the next morning, the home filled with water up to the ceiling in about 20 minutes. The Manganos and their staff scrambled to put their feeble clients onto plastic-wrapped mattresses, which floated. Those who made it were brought to the roof of the home, then ferried to a parish courthouse.
During the trial, prosecutors had suggested that the Manganos were too cheap to evacuate their residents, in "reckless disregard" for their patients' safety.
Noting that three other nursing homes in St. Bernard Parish did evacuate, the prosecutors argued that the Manganos decided to gamble with people's lives.
"They stuck their heads in the sand, tails in the air and hoped that Mother Nature wouldn't kick them in the butt," Assistant Attorney General Paul Knight told jurors in closing arguments.
The evidence that financial concerns drove their decision, however, was relatively scant: A witness testified that after a hurricane-preparedness meeting several years ago, Mabel Mangano told her, "Unless the hurricane is coming in my back door, I'm not putting my residents through an evacuation and wasting money."
The defense attorneys argued that the Manganos chose to "shelter in place" because they cared about their residents and feared the potentially lethal dangers of transporting their frail clientele.
In their first vote Friday afternoon, jurors voted 5 to 1 for acquittal.
"It wasn't just any one reason," juror Michael Cavalier said afterward. "There were a lot of reasons why."
By all accounts, the Manganos' nursing home offered good care to its residents before the storm.
Mabel, the administrator, sometimes helped bathe and dress the residents; Sal, in charge of maintenance, stopped to spoon-feed those who could not feed themselves. Their son and daughter-in-law helped out.
Having been through Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the Manganos also believed that their nursing home had been built on a high spot and was less vulnerable to flooding.
The Manganos' fears for residents' safety during an evacuation were well-founded, too, according to expert witnesses who testified that nursing homes often suffer fatalities when evacuated.
The trial has been fraught with tears and bitterness, and the relatives of the dead and the Manganos have relived the tragedy.
"They killed 35 people," Joy Lewis, whose mother died in the flooding, said after closing arguments. She added that while she does not necessarily think the Manganos should go to jail, "they should pay" and the specific form would be up to God. "When they put their heads on their pillow at night," she said, "they'll pay."