Jury Selection Begins in La. in Katrina Nursing Home Trial

August 16, 2007

Attorneys in St. Francisville, La., prepared Aug. 15 to try to select the final jurors to hear the case of a couple charged with negligent homicide in the deaths of 35 patients at their nursing home following Hurricane Katrina.

Five jurors had been selected an one more juror, along with three alternates, were needed for the trial of Salvador and Mabel Mangano, owners of St. Rita’s nursing home, which flooded when levees broke after the Aug. 29, 2005, storm. The nursing home is in St. Bernard Parish, which was all but wiped out by the floods.

Questioning of jurors at times over the first two days of the trial became a preview of tactics and issues likely to come up at trial.

Lead prosecutor Paul Knight talked extensively about personal responsibility as he questioned possible jurors while defense lawyer James Cobb talked of government responsibility and questioned jurors on their knowledge of the levee breaks in St. Bernard Parish and what they knew of the Army Corps of Engineers’ role in the floods.

Defense lawyer James Cobb also warned potential jurors that they would see gruesome photos of some St. Rita’s victims – bloated bodies lying face down in the mud left by the floods.

“The pictures are folks that hadn’t been recovered for ten whole days. If that makes you uncomfortable, if that makes you unable to be a fair and impartial juror, I need to know,” Cobb said.

Cobb also told jurors that the Manganos’ income may be brought up at trial, including reports that the couple made more than $1 million in 2004.

The state contends the couple is criminally liable because they decided not to evacuate before the hurricane.

The defense contends the Manganos decided to shelter their residents at the nursing home, which had never flooded, rather than expose them to the rigors of evacuation.

More than 1,400 deaths were blamed on Katrina. The Manganos are the only individuals charged with the responsibility of deaths from the storm.

The trial was moved to St. Francisville, about 100 miles to the northwest of the New Orleans area. Prosecutors, defense lawyers and state District Judge Jerome Winsberg agreed that assembling a six-member jury would be difficult in St. Bernard Parish because its population has been slow to return since Katrina struck.

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