People came running out of the federal courthouse like it was about to explode. A young, female producer actually ate concrete trying to get out of the door. Behind the glassed-in walls of the upper floors, others were waving different-colored flags or holding up signs. Television crews and radio correspondents trampled the courthouse's landscape. A couple of reporters were lucky enough to hijack payphones inside the building -- cell phones were not allowed in. Outside, the air was still, the noise unbearable and the sun high. Former Gov. Edwin Edwards was going to jail.
Every major publication in America, from the Chicago Tribune and GQ to the Washington Post and Dallas Morning News, had a reporter in the courtroom at one time during the 2001 racketeering trial of Edwards, who is still serving a 10-year sentence in the federal pokey. Louisiana hasn't seen that kind of gavel-to-gavel drama since, but Hurricane Katrina is providing a courtroom drama of her own as she continues to linger in the Bayou State for yet another act. It won't be as dynamic as Edwards' saga, but the latest trial-of-the-year has everything it takes to make the legal process interesting again for political addicts.
Opening arguments kicked off last week in Attorney General Charles Foti's criminal case against the owners of St. Rita's nursing home, where 35 patients died in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Salvador and Mabel Mangano, the owners of the St. Bernard Parish nursing home, have been charged with negligent homicide. They are the only people in Louisiana being forced to stand trial for any of the 1,400 deaths brought about by Katrina, which made landfall two years ago next Wednesday (Aug. 29).
Foti's team is prepared to argue that the Manganos' patients should have been evacuated and not left behind to deal with the floodwaters and storm surge. The defense, meanwhile, is planning to call Gov. Kathleen Blanco to the stand to sort out whether a large-scale evacuation was properly planned by the state. Not to be outdone, the prosecution has also subpoenaed a group of New Orleans meteorologists and television news directors. No one, from the Fourth Floor to the Fourth Estate, wanted to be on the witness lists.
The state attempted to argue its way out of Blanco's subpoena, but Judge Jerome Winsberg, formerly of Criminal District Court in New Orleans, stood firm. The Governess now finds herself in a situation that no elected official envies. Attorney Joe Raspanti, a criminal defense lawyer, former prosecutor and courtroom analyst from Metairie, says Blanco's lack of oratorical finesse has gotten her in trouble before -- and endless hours on the stand could produce a public relations nightmare. "The governor having to testify could absolutely be an embarrassing experience," he says.
Winsberg is regarded as a fair judge, Raspanti adds, but the defense won't be so even handed. If an issue related to Blanco's response is floating around out there, expect defense attorney James Cobb to try and drag it in. Stuart P. Green, a criminal law professor at the Paul M. Hebert LSU Law Center, says Blanco could ask Winsberg to take her testimony behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny. "She could even argue there are security issues, but I doubt this will come up," he says. "Still, it always could."
One thing is for sure: The jury will be in for a treat when Blanco and others take the stand. In fact, that may be what most in the jury box are waiting for. In addition to Blanco, the list of New Orleans news media subpoenaed by the state includes Carl Arredondo of WWL-TV, Bob Breck of WVUE-TV and Dan Milham of WDSU-TV. The prosecution says it plans to ask the meteorologists about their pre-Katrina coverage. More than 72 hours of news coverage from the stations has been reviewed and edited by Foti's office, likely showing repeated warnings to get out of town.
While Blanco is granted certain protections under the law, members of the various news teams enjoy fewer privileges, particularly in a criminal case. It's anybody's guess as to whether civil lawsuits will arise from the testimony. "Hell, you can sue the pope for pandering on Poydras Street if you want to," Raspanti says.
The trial was moved to St. Francisville after all parties agreed that it would be difficult to get a fair trial and impartial jury in the New Orleans area following Katrina. The case is expected to run four to six weeks in the St. Francisville Courthouse, so it could easily become a campaign issue in the upcoming race for attorney general. The political pomp and pageantry that preceded jury selection is over. For now, it's all about the judicial system, and the testimony of a group of star witnesses.
"The politics have ended," says Raspanti. "That's moot at this point. The show is starting, the jury has been seated and now the rules of evidence kick in."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at email@example.com.
- Mabel and Sal Mangano are standing trial on charges they are responsible for the deaths of 35 elderly residents at their St. Rita's nursing home during Katrina.