Star Witnesses

by Jeremy Alford

With testimony expected from Gov. Kathleen Blanco and a trio of TV weathermen, Attorney General Charles Foti's high-profile case against the owners of a storm-stricken nursing home could be a media circus outside and inside the courtroom.

People came running out of the Federal Courthouse like it was about to explode. Television crews and radio correspondents trampled the courthouse's landscape and a young, female producer took a nasty fall trying to get out of the door. A couple of reporters were lucky enough to hijack payphones inside of the building ' cell phones were not allowed in. Outside, the sun was high, the air was still and 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 out a 10-year sentence in federal prison. Louisiana hasn't seen that kind of gavel-to-gavel drama since, but that's about to change.

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, are being tagged with negligent homicide by the prosecution. 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 nearly two years ago.

Foti's team is prepared to argue that the Mangano's 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 massive-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, wants to be on the witness stand.

The state attempted to argue its way out of Blanco's subpoena, but Judge Jerome Winsberg stood firm and now the governor is in a situation that no elected official envies. Joe Raspanti, a criminal lawyer and courtroom analyst from Metairie, says Blanco's oratory proficiency has gotten her in trouble in the past and endless hours on the stand could be 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 is pulling out all the stops. If an issue related to Blanco's response is floating around out there, expect the defense to try and drag it in. Stuart P. Green, a criminal law professor at 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: it could turn into a media circus outside and inside the courtroom. In addition to Blanco, the prosecution has subpoenaed New Orleans broadcasters Carl Arredondo of WWL, Bob Breck of WVUE and Dan Milham of WDSU; prosecutors 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 are not. No other lawsuits are expected to arise from the testimony expected, but there's always an element of the unknown. "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 of the parties involved agreed that would be difficult to get a fair trial and proper jury poll in the New Orleans area following Katrina. The case is expected to run for four to six weeks in the St. Francisville Courthouse. The squabbling that preceded the jury selection is mostly over, and now it's all about the judicial system and the testimony of a group of high-profile 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."