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Sources: New Orleans nurses offered immunity in deaths

Story Highlights

• Nurses to testify in post-Katrina deaths of four patients, sources say
• Two nurses, doctor charged with second-degree murder in case
• Doctor has not been involved with grand jury, attorney says
• New Orleans hospital staff accused of killing patients in chaos after storm
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(CNN) -- Two nurses accused in the post-Katrina deaths of four patients at New Orleans' Memorial Medical Center have been offered immunity to testify before a special grand jury, sources close to the investigation tell CNN.

Sources also told CNN the grand jury has been told as many as nine patients may have died after being administered what Louisiana's attorney general called a "lethal cocktail" of medications by hospital staff.

Family members said staffers used the drugs to kill patients so caregivers could flee appalling conditions inside the hospital after the storm.

Dr. Anna Pou and nurses Cheri Landry and Lori Budo were arrested in July 2006 after a 10-month investigation. Louisiana Attorney General Charles C. Foti charged them with second-degree murder.

Sources close to the investigation told CNN the two nurses are expected to testify before the grand jury in the next two weeks, which could signal a possible wrapping up of the case. It could also signal the main target of the investigation is Pou, a physician who was under contract with Memorial Medical Center when Katrina struck.

Attorneys for Landry and Budo did not immediately return calls from CNN regarding their testimony. Pou's attorney, Rick Simmons, provided a statement saying Pou has had no role in the grand jury proceedings.

"We remain confident that once all the facts are known, all medical personnel will be exonerated of any criminal charges," the statement continued. "The fact that certain witnesses may or may not be talking to the grand jury does not change that fact."

'Lethal cocktail' administered

The investigation determined 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, Foti said.

None of the patients had been prescribed the drugs by their caregivers and none of the accused treated the four before the injections, Foti said.

"This was not euthanasia," Foti said at a news conference last summer. "This was homicide."

Pou, Landry and Budo have denied the charges, and their attorneys have said they acted heroically, staying to treat patients rather than evacuating.

The case has languished since. Foti said he turned his findings over to Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan, who by law must either file charges or reject the case.

Instead, Jordan impaneled a grand jury, and has vowed to let it decide what charges, if any, should be sought. Jordan also directed New Orleans Coroner Frank Minyard to hire outside forensic experts to review the case.

But sources close to the investigation say the case has moved very slowly. And one of the forensic experts in the case told CNN he has yet to testify.

Dr. Michael Baden, the former chief medical examiner for New York City, said Minyard hired him to review the deaths. Baden said he has not been asked to appear before the the grand jury.

Minyard has testified in the case. So have two investigators for the Louisiana attorney general's office.

CNN has learned a third nurse, not charged in the investigation, has also testified, saying she accompanied Pou on the seventh floor of the hospital to make sure all the patients left behind were deceased.

Dalton Savwoir, a spokesman for the district attorney's office, said the slow movement of the case is intentional.

"It's definitely still in the investigatory phase," Savwoir told CNN. He would not confirm the witness list and refused to speculate on whether the two accused nurses have been offered immunity if they testify.

Allegations surface months after storm

CNN first reported the allegations of euthanasia months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and flooded New Orleans.

Dr. Bryant King, a contract physician at the hospital, told CNN in 2005, shortly after the hospital was evacuated, that he was approached by a doctor who told him a hospital administrator had suggested euthanizing patients to put them "out of their misery."

King said he objected, but a third doctor agreed to do it. King said he later saw Pou with a handful of syringes, but he did not witness any wrongdoing.

Sources have told CNN that the killings were allegedly carried out to hasten evacuation as medical equipment failed, temperatures soared, food dwindled and looters converged on nearby buildings.

Craig Nelson, a New Orleans lawyer who is convinced his mother was killed by a lethal dose of morphine, has taken steps to file a civil lawsuit.

Nelson had an autopsy performed on the body of his mother, Elaine Nelson. The 90-year-old Jefferson Parish resident died inside Memorial Medical Center during the aftermath of the hurricane. Nelson said her death is not part of the murder investigation because his mother was elderly, frail and sick.

She was a patient of LifeCare, a long-term care facility run inside Memorial Medical Center's seventh floor. Nelson said his sister was helping to care for his mother during Katrina, but was asked to leave. It was after his sister was evacuated that he was told his mother had died.

Test results conducted by a private lab hired by the lawyer indicate high levels of morphine in Elaine Nelson's liver, muscle tissue and brain, Nelson said. He said his mother should have had no morphine in her system, since none had been prescribed to her in the week and a half before she died.

Nelson said his mother was killed to hasten the medical staff's evacuation of the flooded hospital. He said he started taking the steps to file his own lawsuit with the "intent to find the murderer" of his mother.

LifeCare has repeatedly declined to be interviewed by CNN, citing the ongoing investigation. But it issued a statement saying its employees acted heroically under difficult conditions. LifeCare said it has cooperated with the investigation.

CNN's Drew Griffin, Kathleen Johnston, Susan Roesgen, Belinda Hernandez and Eric Marrapodi contributed to this report.

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