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New Orleans hospital deaths back in spotlight

  • Story Highlights
  • Post-Katrina euthanasia was alleged at Memorial Hospital
  • Grand jury declined to file charges and case was closed
  • Different district attorney deciding whether to reopen investigation
  • CNN first reported allegations six weeks after Hurricane Katrina
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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- The Orleans Parish district attorney said he plans to look into deaths at a New Orleans hospital in the days following Hurricane Katrina, but stopped short of calling it an investigation.

Dr. Anna Pou and two nurses were accused. Pou's case went before a grand jury and she was not indicted.

Staff at Memorial were accused of hastening four patients' deaths in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

"My office has not reopened an investigation into the deaths at Memorial hospital" after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Leon Cannizzaro said in a statement released Friday.

"As district attorney, I have a legal obligation to evaluate statements regarding possible criminal activity in this jurisdiction," the statement said. "I am making that kind of evaluation, but that does not constitute an investigation by this office."

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported in a story Saturday that Cannizzaro will interview New Orleans coroner Frank Minyard and possibly other pathologists on the coroner's staff regarding the deaths of Memorial Medical Center patients.

But the newspaper quoted Cannizzaro as saying an investigation would involve convening a grand jury and bringing in witnesses to testify, and he does not at this time have plans to do that. After speaking with the coroner, the district attorney said he would decide whether a more in-depth investigation is necessary.

Cannizzaro's spokesman, Christopher Bowman, said Monday the DA's office had no further comment beyond the Friday statement.

According to the Times-Picayune, Cannizzaro's conversation with Minyard was prompted by an article in The New York Times last month that quoted two doctors as saying that they gave Memorial patients morphine and other drugs in the days after the hurricane struck, knowing they would die.

Cannizzaro told the newspaper he would be "remiss in his responsibilities" if he did not talk to Minyard about information in the article. "That doesn't mean I am opening an investigation," he said.

Katrina roared ashore near the Mississippi-Louisiana state line on August 29, 2005, rupturing three of New Orleans' protective levees and putting about three-quarters of the city under water.

Then-Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti Jr. launched an investigation after officials from Lifecare, an acute-care facility operating on the seventh floor of Memorial, reported allegations that several seriously ill, mostly elderly patients had been euthanized by medical staff at Memorial as the floodwater rose around the hospital and conditions inside deteriorated.

In 2006, Foti ordered the arrest of Dr. Anna Pou and two nurses, Lori Budo and Cheri Landry, on preliminary charges of second-degree murder in the deaths of four patients. Former Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan, who under Louisiana law was responsible for prosecuting crimes, gave Budo and Landry immunity in exchange for their testimony. In July 2007, the grand jury refused to indict Pou.

Foti said his investigation revealed that the four patients -- ages 63, 68, 91 and 93 -- were given a "lethal cocktail" of morphine and midazolam hydrochloride, both central nervous system depressants. Pou, Landry and Budo all denied the charges, and their attorneys said they acted heroically, staying to treat patients rather than evacuate.

In an interview with Newsweek magazine in 2007, Pou admitted giving the patients drugs. "If in doing so it hastened their deaths, then that's what happened," she said. "But this was not, 'I'm going to go to the seventh floor and murder some people.' We're here to help patients."

The grand jury never heard testimony from five specialists who advised Foti that the patients were deliberately killed with overdoses of drugs after Katrina struck. All five were brought in by Foti's office to analyze the deaths, and concluded the patients were homicide victims.

After the grand jury refused to indict Pou, Jordan called the case closed and said he would no longer pursue it.

If Cannizzaro does decide an in-depth investigation is warranted, it could affect the outcome of a lawsuit in which CNN and The Times-Picayune are seeking the release of Foti's investigative file into the deaths. CNN was the first to report the allegations of euthanasia, six weeks after the hurricane.

The case went to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which in July sent it back to the trial court to rule on whether criminal litigation in the case is reasonably anticipated, according to Lori Mince, the New Orleans attorney representing the media organizations.

A reopened investigation could lead the court to rule that criminal charges may be forthcoming.

Hospital workers identified only as John and Jane Doe had sued to block the public release of the file, claiming the records are covered by grand jury secrecy rules, that they should have been considered confidential informants and that releasing the documents would violate their privacy.

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