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Grand jury saw Pou as hero, attorney says
A New Orleans grand jury's refusal to indict Anna Pou, MD, on murder charges stemming from several patients' deaths in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina shows that the jurors understood "the difference between heroism and homicide," says an attorney who has represented several of the New Orleans health care facilities that were hardest hit by the disaster.
Lester Johnson, JD, an attorney with the law firm of McGlinchey Stafford in New Orleans, provided counsel to several New Orleans hospitals on regulatory and operational issues as they sought to reopen. He says the grand jury panelists "saw straight through Attorney General Charles Foti's reckless allegations and his underlying political/ego-driven motives." Johnson and the law firm have represented six of the leading health care institutions in New Orleans in recent years, and he says risk managers should be relieved that the grand jury did not comply with the efforts of state Attorney General Charles Foti, JD. Foti had sought to press criminal charges against the doctor at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans and alleged she and others administered a "lethal cocktail" of drugs to end the lives of patients in the desperate days before help arrived. Foti had sought a 10-count indictment: one count of second-degree murder, and nine more counts of conspiracy to commit second-degree murder.
A New Orleans Parish grand jury issued a "no true bill" at Criminal District Court, which ended Pou's criminal saga. The second-degree murder cases against the two nurses, Lori Budo, RN, and Cheri Landry, RN, were dropped earlier this month after they were compelled to testify before a New Orleans grand jury.
Pou's Metairie attorney, Richard T. Simmons, JD, with the firm Hailey McNamara in Metairie, LA, issued a statement in which he said the grand jury's decision "fully and completely vindicates Dr. Pou of any criminal wrong doing in the wake of a miserably inept response by government at all levels to Hurricane Katrina." The decision brings to an end "23 months of pain and uncertainty, the hallmarks of which include suffering along with her colleagues, acutely ill patients, and far too many others in the sweltering heat and chaos of Memorial Hospital while local, state, and federal governments wrestled and wrangled and twiddled their thumbs as more than 40 people succumbed to third-world conditions inside the hospital."
Still some chilling effect
Johnson says the grand jury decision still may have a chilling effect on health care providers' willingness to serve in disaster situations.
"This case is a stark reminder that 'staying behind' can still result in them being subject to an unfair and ill-advised prosecution by authorities looking to further their own careers or political futures," he says. Foti's actions in this case were irresponsible and threatened to discourage physicians and nurses from making themselves available to provide care the next time a disaster strikes, Johnson says. "On the bright side, however, health care workers should take comfort in the fact that the public seems to be of the opinion that our medical professionals should be able to respond to emergency situations without the fear of being subjected to baseless criminal allegations," he says.
Johnson says what surprises him most about the case is how Foti, and even some of the expert witnesses, reacted to the grand jury's refusal to indict Pou. The day after the grand jury decision, Foti's office released a statement insisting that, despite the grand jury's findings, Pou did commit homicide.
Much of the attorney general's case relied on toxicology reports indicating the presence of morphine and Versed despite the fact that none of the patients received the drugs before Pou took over their care, Johnson notes. Such conclusions ignore the possibility that the patients' medical conditions worsened due to the unbearable conditions that existed at the hospital after Katrina's landfall, he says.
In particular, Johnson notes what he calls the absurdity of one report offered to the grand jury by the attorney general. In that report, a medical expert claimed that the administration of morphine and Versed shortened the lives of all nine patients.
"Our prisons would be filled with oncologists, hospice workers, and a host of other specialists if prosecutors charged physicians with homicide every time the administration of morphine and Versed shortens the life of a patient," Johnson says. "None of this has anything to do with Dr. Pou's intent."
Pou also is suing the state of Louisiana and is asking a judge to force the state to pay for her legal representation against medical malpractice claims filed by the deceased patients' families.
Johnson says she should prevail. Pou is an employee of the state of Louisiana, and the state is responsible for defending its employed physicians from medical malpractice claims unless the physician's actions involve criminal conduct, he says. "It is preposterous the state can rely on the criminal acts exception when the state is the entity that brought the charges and in the end, it failed to prove that any criminal activities took place," Johnson says. "In any event, the intense involvement of the attorney general's office in this case should have disqualified it from making the decision on whether the state should defend Dr. Pou in civil suits."
For more information about the grand jury's refusal to indict, contact:
Pou says legal victory doesn't erase tragedy
Anna Pou, MD, the New Orleans physician accused of killing patients in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, says the grand jury's refusal to indict her on murder charges ends a 23-month ordeal. But she says, the legal victory should not overshadow the tragedy of what happened at Memorial Medical Center after the storm.
In a posting on the web site devoted to defending her against legal and civil claims (www.support drpou.com), Pou wrote that "this is not a moment of triumph, but a moment of remembrance for all those who lost their lives during the storm." She goes on to say, "We need to remember the magnitude of human suffering that occurred in the city of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina so that we can ensure that this never happens again — and that no health care professional should ever go through this again."
Several health care organizations have expressed support for Pou, including the Orleans Parish Medical Society and the American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS). The Louisiana State Medical Society (LSMS) issued a statement praising the grand jury's decision and addressing concerns that her legal odyssey could dissuade some caregivers from risking a similar fate. "The LSMS strongly believes that Dr. Pou courageously performed her duties as a physician under the most challenging and horrific conditions. The decisions she made were in the best interests of the patients under her care," the group states. "We hope the grand jury's decision will remove the 'chilling effect' these charges have had and encourage physicians and other health care providers to continue to volunteer during disaster and emergency situations."