In the 1957 Oscar-winning WWII film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, British POW Col. Nicholson mistakes pride for duty and helps the Japanese build a strategically important bridge -- in the name of showing up his captors and keeping his men busy during captivity. Nicholson becomes so obsessed with building the bridge that he loses sight of the fact that his real duty is to sabotage it.
As I watched Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti reacting to the news that an Orleans Parish grand jury decided not to indict Dr. Anna Maria Pou on murder charges last week, I couldn't help but think of Foti as a modern-day Col. Nicholson. He has become obsessed with a case that he cannot even control, let alone win, but his stubborn pride won't let him see that his duty is to accept the grand jury's decision and move on.
And, like Col. Nicholson, his obsession may well become his professional undoing.
In fairness, the fictional River Kwai story has as its backdrop a war that drew bright moral lines, at least in the minds of readers and viewers, between captors and captives. In Foti's real-life drama, moral lines are blurred by longstanding questions of how and when a physician can (and should) ease a dying patient's suffering -- and this story's backdrop was a storm that provided a metaphor all its own. Moreover, no one could accuse Foti of mistakenly collaborating with an enemy of the state.
That said, these two stories are not about war or a hurricane, but rather the toll that one powerful man's blind obsession can take on himself and those around him.
Foti set things in motion a year ago when he decided to try Pou and two nurses in the media. Attorneys for the three women -- all of whom stayed with critically ill patients at Memorial Hospital during the fateful days after Katrina -- had promised Foti's office that their clients would voluntarily surrender if the AG's office decided to arrest them. That's a common courtesy when a suspect is considered unlikely to flee.
Instead of acceding to the defense attorneys' requests, however, Foti had them yanked from their homes in the evening hours in the glare of TV lights. The next day, he called a news conference and proclaimed the three women murderers, accusing them of giving fatal "cocktails" to at least four patients. Long accustomed to working the media to his political advantage, Foti no doubt expected the press to portray him -- and the public to hail him -- as a crusading defender of the helplessly ill. Instead, he was roundly pilloried as a persecutor of doctors and nurses at a time when New Orleans desperately needed more doctors and nurses.
Foti handed the case over to Orleans Parish DA Eddie Jordan, who at the time was a political ally. Jordan announced he would convene a grand jury to investigate the charges.
After several months of testimony and a grant of immunity to the two nurses, the grand jury last week declined to indict Pou. That should have been the end of it, but Foti just couldn't let it end there.
He called a news conference and accused his one-time ally Jordan of blowing the case by not calling expert witnesses that Foti's office had hired. All five of those experts concluded that the patients' deaths were homicides. Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Frank Minyard, however, said his investigators could not ascertain the causes of death. Local and national medical societies, meanwhile, rallied to Pou's defense.
Foti didn't stop at attacking Jordan. The next day, he asked a New Orleans judge to unseal evidence his office gathered in the case, allegedly in response to media inquiries but also conveniently in time to help plaintiff attorneys who are suing Pou and others in civil court.
Foti cut a defiant, even angry pose after the grand jury's decision, in contrast to the heroic histrionics he summoned at the outset of the case. In the face of overwhelming public sentiment in favor of Dr. Pou, the AG said he isn't concerned about how all this might affect his re-election chances this fall. "I wasn't elected just to be re-elected," he said.
If he keeps letting his pride cloud his judgment, that statement could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Terri Fensel
- Attorney General Charles Foti is burning bridges as he pursues the Memorial Medical Center case.