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Release Katrina hospital deaths file, Louisiana judge says

By the CNN Wire Staff
National Guardsmen watch over Memorial Medical Center after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
National Guardsmen watch over Memorial Medical Center after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
  • Judge says no pending cases justify keeping file closed
  • CNN had sought the records and praised the decision
  • A grand jury refused to bring charges in 2007
  • An appeal of the latse decision is likely, lawyer says

(CNN) -- A Louisiana judge has ordered prosecutors to release their files on the deaths of patients at a New Orleans hospital in the days following Hurricane Katrina, finding that no related legal cases are in the works.

Baton Rouge District Judge Donald Johnson ruled that investigators' records of the Memorial Medical Center deaths don't involve "criminal litigation which is either pending or which can be reasonably anticipated," so they have to be disclosed under state open records laws. It's the second such order by a state judge, following a 2007 decision that was vacated by an appeals court.

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. CNN and the New Orleans Times-Picayune are among the parties to the lawsuit, which also included state and local prosecutors.

"We are glad that the Louisiana court has recognized that the investigatory file into the deaths that occurred at Memorial Medical Center in the days following Hurricane Katrina can no longer be withheld from disclosure under the public records laws," CNN said in a statement on the decision. "CNN remains committed to covering New Orleans post-Katrina."

The Louisiana Supreme Court sent the case back to the district court in July to rule on whether criminal litigation in the case was expected, leading to the ruling received today. There was no immediate word on whether any of those parties would appeal, but Lori Mince, one of the lawyers who represented CNN, said she expected someone will do so.

"Unless everyone is going to fold up their tent, which seems unlikely, we're in for another several months of appeals," Mince said.

The case stems from allegations that several seriously ill, mostly elderly patients had been euthanized by medical staff at Memorial Hospital following the 2005 hurricane, when floodwaters rose around the hospital and conditions inside deteriorated. A doctor and two nurses were arrested in connection with the deaths, but a grand jury declined to bring charges against them in 2007.

CNN was the first to report the allegations of euthanasia, six weeks after the hurricane. Then-Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti Jr. ordered the arrest of Dr. Anna Pou and two nurses on preliminary charges of second-degree murder in the deaths of four of the patients.

Foti said the four, who ranged in age from their early 60s to their early 90s, were given a "lethal cocktail" of morphine and another depressant, midazolam hydrochloride. Experts he consulted reported that of all the people who died in Katrina, only at Memorial was that combination of drugs to blame.

Pou and the nurses, Lori Budo and Cheri Landry, denied the charges, and their attorneys said they acted heroically by staying to treat patients rather than evacuate. Foti gave Budo and Landry immunity in exchange for their testimony, but in July 2007, a grand jury refused to indict Pou. Then-New Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan called the case closed and said he would no longer pursue it.

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