The news was gut-wrenching: 35 bodies, all elderly residents of St. Rita's Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish, found floating in the floodwaters that followed Hurricane Katrina. The national media, already in a frenzy over the scale of Katrina's destruction, obsessed over grisly "details" of the story — many of which were completely untrue.
Victims were said to be tied to their beds or wheelchairs while Salvador and Mabel Mangano, the owners of St. Rita's, allegedly skipped town. One media account had them shopping in Jackson, Miss. Another claimed they were on a cruise ship sailing to Mexico. By the end of 2005, Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti charged the Manganos with 35 counts each of negligent homicide, plus multiple counts of elder abuse. The couple faced the possibility of life in prison.
In his forthcoming book, Flood of Lies, New Orleans lawyer James Cobb tells the Manganos' side of the story. Cobb led the team that successfully defended the Manganos in a St. Francisville courtroom. The attorney, who lives in Lakeview, had lost everything in Katrina. He left his family in a Houston hotel room when he got a call seeking legal help for Sal and Mabel Mangano, names he knew only from the news.
Immediately after his first meeting with the family, Cobb took the case. What ensued was a two-year battle against media pundits, a publicity-hungry state attorney general and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — set against an epic tragedy that forever changed the landscape of Louisiana.
"I had some familiarity with representation of health care institutions — doctors, hospitals, and nursing homes — and when I saw the stories [on TV], I said, 'Forget about a trial, they just ought to take these two guys out and shoot 'em,'" Cobb says. "That's how the presumption of innocence had been co-opted in me. I thought it was horrific.
"Then through this wild circumstance of incredible coincidence — or divine choice, if you believe as Mabel believes — I wind up on the phone with them. And as I'm on the phone with Mabel and her lawyer, I'm sitting in the hotel room and there on the screen is a helicopter view of them pulling the bodies out of St. Rita's nursing home. The voiceover by the commentator was, 'We're seeing images now of recovery experts taking the bodies out of St. Rita's Nursing Home. The question on the mind of law enforcement officials is, why didn't they evacuate?' And I was on the phone at that very minute with the only person in the world who could answer that question: Mabel."
Cobb admits the Manganos' case was not one that most lawyers, himself included, normally would accept. It happened that he had just finished reading David McCullough's book John Adams, which describes Adams' decision to defend the soldiers in the Boston Massacre after every lawyer in Boston had turned them down. "Adams said that in a free society everyone is entitled to a defense, and if scorn and ridicule and abuse are heaped upon the lawyer who chooses to defend them, then that's the price he has to pay," Cobb told Gambit. "I was inspired by that."
Cobb paid a price, too.
"Ultimately, my law firm disintegrated," he said. "When you jump on a case of this magnitude, your other clients can see that you're in the middle of a big fight and they stop calling you. The sacrifice that you make is cutting yourself off from your established business and cutting yourself off from your partners. You singlemindedly pursue the defense of these two people who have placed their lives in your hands. So the price I paid was that when the case was over, I quit."
He describes Flood of Lies as "a murder mystery with Katrina as the background ... a great story with terrible facts at the center of the story." At the end of the day, he says, "Both sides lost. Nobody won. It was horrible."
— Brad Rhines