A doctor and two nurses who worked through the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina were arrested overnight, accused of giving four patients stranded at their hospital lethal doses of morphine and a sedative, authorities said Tuesday.
"We're not calling this euthanasia. We're not calling this mercy killings. This is second-degree murder," said Kris Wartelle, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Charles C. Foti.
The arrest warrants say Dr. Anna Pou and the two nurses intentionally killed four patients at Memorial Medical Center "by administering or causing to be administered lethal doses of morphine sulphate and midazolam."
Specifically, investigators say, the three accused killed four elderly
patients with lethal doses of the morphine and a sedative known as Versed, CBS News' Teri Okita reports.
"When you use both these drugs together it becomes a lethal cocktail
that guarantees they are going to die," Foti said.
In an affidavit, an agent for the Louisiana Justice Department wrote that Pou told a nurse executive three days after the hurricane hit that "lethal doses" would be administered to those patients who could not be evacuated.
"'Lethal doses of what?'" the nurse executive asked, according to the affidavit says. It says Pou answered: "morphine and ativan."
Two months after the hurricane, the attorney general subpoenaed more than 70 people in an investigation into rumors that medical personnel at Memorial Medical Center had euthanized patients who were in pain after the hurricane as they waited in miserable conditions for rescue. Foti has said previously that Louisiana law prohibits mercy killings of any sort.
Pou's attorney, Rick Simmons, said his client is innocent of any criminal behavior, and her mother said she was distressed by her daughter's arrest.
"Medicine was the most important thing in her life and I know she never ever did anything deliberately to hurt anyone," Jeanette Pou said in a telephone interview.
Memorial Medical Center had been cut off by flooding after the Aug. 29 hurricane swamped New Orleans. Power was out in the 317-bed hospital and the temperatures inside rose over 100 degrees as the staff tried to tend to patients who waited four days to be evacuated.
At least 34 patients died there during that period, 10 of them patients of the hospital's owner Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare Corp. and 24 patients in a facility run by LifeCare Holdings Inc., a separate company.
After the bodies were recovered, Orleans Parish coroner Frank Minyard said they were so decomposed the deaths could only be listed as "Katrina-related."
He later said samples had been taken from dozens of patients who died at various hospitals and nursing homes to test for potentially lethal doses of drugs such as morphine.
"We all did everything in our power to give the best treatment that we could to the patients in the hospital to make them comfortable," Pou said then.
Tammie Holley, an attorney representing about a dozen families whose relatives died at Memorial, says the presence of the sedative in addition to morphine is important in determining whether hospital staff intended to kill a patient. Midazolam is used to induce unconsciousness before surgery, according to a medical Web site.
"If it was only morphine, there would be no way to know if they were administering it to control their pain," Holley said.
Harry Anderson, a spokesman for Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare Corp., said the allegations against the doctor and nurses, if proven true, were disturbing.
"Euthanasia is repugnant to everything we believe as ethical health care providers, and it violates every precept of ethical behavior and the law. It is never permissible under any circumstances," Anderson said.
In addition to Pou, nurses Cheri Landry and Lori Budo were arrested and later released on personal recognizance bonds, officials said.
It wasn't immediately clear if Landry and Budo had attorneys who could comment.
Simmons said Pou was arrested and handcuffed at her house late Monday night.
"I told them that she is not a flight risk. I told them that she would surrender herself. Instead, they chose to arrest her in her scrubs so that they could present her scalp to the media," he said.
Angela McManus said Tuesday that her 70-year-old mother was among the patients who died at Memorial. Her mother had been recovering from a blood infection but seemed fine and was still able to speak when police demanded relatives of the ill evacuate. She died later that day, McManus said.
"At least now I'll be able to get some answers," McManus said. "For months, I haven't known what happened to my mom. I need some answers just to be able to function."
Tenet said Tuesday it is selling the now-closed Memorial Medical Center and two other area hospitals to Ochsner Health System, a sale expected to be completed by Aug. 31.