The rally supporting Dr. Anna Pou marked the one-year anniversary of state Attorney General Charles Foti's famous press conference in Baton Rouge, carried live on CNN, in which he accused Pou and nurses Lori Budo and Cheri Landry of second-degree murder in the deaths of several patients at Memorial Medical Center, where the women worked in war-camp conditions during the harrowing days after Hurricane Katrina.
Signs posted on columns and held aloft in the audience said a lot --
"Dr. Pou we are with you."
"Heroes Not Criminals."
"Jordan and Foti Gotta Go."
After his news conference in Baton Rouge, Foti held what he no doubt hoped would be a celebratory fundraiser in a downtown New Orleans hotel. Public backlash was quick and decisive against the AG, however, by which time he had already handed the case off to New Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan, in whose jurisdiction the deaths occurred. With a staff beleaguered by surging drug homicides, Jordan moved slowly in taking the case to a grand jury.
Over the past year, Dr. Pou was unable to perform her hallmark reconstructive surgery on cancer patients disfigured in the face and neck. However, she maintained her salary and administrative tasks. The nurses, on the other hand, went into a free-fall, unable to work and relying on a support group of medical personnel who have assisted them financially.
In June, the DA's office decided not to indict the nurses, but forced them to testify before the grand jury. As Gambit Weekly went to press, no decision had been announced as to whether Dr. Pou would be indicted.
"Most people would pray for a doctor who was like this," Dr. Daniel Nuss, who had been head of the Ear, Nose and Throat department at Memorial Medical Center, said of Pou at the rally. He recounted her work in "reconstructive surgery of cancers and disfiguring diseases of the head and neck" -- a job that required "looking at people with grotesque disfigurements and gaping wounds ... people who often can't speak and breathe."
A current of hostility toward Foti was palpable in the crowd.
"We are required to stay or lose our jobs during a hurricane," Karen Sampson, head of the Memorial Nurses Support Fund, told the audience. "We also face the risk of criminal charges ... without the support of the criminal justice system."
Pollster and political commentator Silas Lee recently conducted a survey measuring public perceptions of Dr. Pou. The survey was paid for by several of Pou's supporters. "The majority of people hadn't heard a lot about Dr. Pou," Lee told Gambit, "but 62 percent have a positive impression.
"On the question of whether the doctor should be charged, 74 percent said no," Lee continued. "Seventy-three per cent agreed with the coroner's decision that the evidence did not support homicide. We are coming up to one year since the charges were brought. Public opinion in my view hasn't changed much because we haven't had any new information emerge, other than the nurses were freed."
The week before and the week of the rally saw yet one more of the increasingly surreal episodes in the ongoing drama of New Orleans' eroding criminal justice system.
On July 12, Mayor Ray Nagin blasted Jordan after the DA's office again cited the unavailability of a witness and dismissed five first-degree murder charges against Michael Anderson, 20. One day later, NOPD detectives located the witness with little trouble. With outrage against Jordan building -- Councilwoman Shelley Midura sent a letter asking Jordan to resign -- Nagin held a news conference to announce that help was on the way.
A poker-faced Foti stood next to Nagin, announcing that he would conduct a "systems review" of the DA's office. The idea of Foti, prosecutor of a doctor and two nurses, objectively investigating (or giving political cover to) Jordan, who can't make cases against street killers, struck many people as laughable. Jordan is the only local DA in the state whose name appeared on a long list of Foti campaign "committee" members a year ago -- atop a letter inviting contributors to Foti's fundraiser days after Pou and the nurses were arrested.
The irony of Foti "reviewing" Jordan's office was not lost on Garland Robinette, a voice of the city whose lamentations on WWL Radio sounded a rage to high heaven. At one point two weeks ago, Robinette actually got Foti on the line, but after Robinette pressed Foti, the AG hung up.
Meanwhile, Pou attorney Richard Simmons has filed suit in state court in Baton Rouge against the Office of Risk Management, naming Foti as a defendant and demanding financial coverage of Pou's legal fees in several civil malpractice claims that arose from the deaths at Memorial. Simmons claims that Pou, as a physician working for the LSU system, should be covered under the state's medical malpractice insurance policies. The state, under the legal opinion of the AG's office, has refused to provide attorney fees to defend Pou in those civil cases.
"The Attorney General's Office was in a conflict of interest to decide whether Dr. Pou was entitled to a [civil case] defense," the petition charges. Foti "brushed aside any discussion of the conflict issue and denied a defense to Dr. Pou" -- because she was involved in alleged "criminal activity."
In other words, because Foti had charged Pou with second-degree homicide, Foti decided that Pou would have to pay her own legal fees in civil cases accusing her of negligence in deaths at the hospital. The three civil cases against Pou were filed after Foti made the homicide charges at his press conference last July. If the grand jury does not indict Pou, she faces steep legal fees defending herself against the civil lawsuits.
"If I had sued the Attorney General for a false arrest of Dr. Pou," Simmons told Gambit, "Foti would have been entitled to a defense paid for by the state. That's all we're asking -- that she have access to a defense."
Pou's lawsuit against Foti charges that the state's "evacuation plan for hospitals was a failure and Attorney General Foti was one of the signatories to the plan. ... After Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, both state and federal government abandoned Dr. Pou and other medical professionals along with the patients who remained at the hospital for the next four days."
At the rally, Kathy Green, a nurse who spearheaded a support group for Budo and Landry, and who worked at Memorial Medical Center with the three women, said: "One year is too long without justice and resolution. ... I witnessed firsthand their unwavering dedication and Herculean effort to save lives."
As other speakers, including a sibling, Michael Pou, spoke of the doctor's dedication and that of the two nurses, people interrupted with applause. Perhaps the loudest burst came when nurse Karen Simpson said: "If there is an indictment, do you realize what it would do to this already troubled state?"
That question weighed heavily on the crowd, many of whom work in hospitals. With medical services stretched beyond capacity, and waits in hospital emergency rooms backed up for hours, the metropolitan area faces a huge medical rebuilding and recruitment effort. Foti's statements on CNN a year ago were as much insult as threat to nurses and doctors at the very time many of their colleagues were leaving the state for places with better living conditions.
As the case drags on, the parallel between the medical crisis and the breakdown in the criminal justice system is striking. As drug battles spiral, wounded foot soldiers end up in trauma centers, taxing an overtaxed system. Foti's re-election campaign has a fat war chest for this fall's elections -- while Jordan, the AG's sole political supporter among local DA's, had less than $4,000 on hand for his re-election next year, according to the latest state campaign finance reports.
Gambit contributor Jason Berry is the author, most recently, of a novel, Last of the Red Hot Poppas