The owners of a nursing home where 35 elderly people drowned during Hurricane Katrina were not evil, yet their failure to evacuate the facility caused needless death, a prosecutor said at the start of the couple's trial on Thursday.

The August 2005 incident, in which Katrina's storm surge trapped and drowned victims confined to wheelchairs or their beds, is considered one of the worst tragedies of the storm, which killed some 1,500 people on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

"It's not the state's contention and it never has been that that Sal and Mabel Mangano intended to kill any of their residents," Paul Knight, assistant Louisiana attorney general told the jury of six. "It's not our contention they intended to treat them cruelly. They were not evil people."

But it was criminally negligent for the Manganos not to evacuate the nursing home, located near New Orleans, and any efforts to save people came "way, way too late," Knight said.

In September 2006, a suburban St. Bernard Parish grand jury indicted Salvador Mangano, 67, and his wife, Mabel, 65, on 35 counts of negligent homicide, which is less serious than murder, and 24 counts of cruelty to the infirm.

But defense attorney John Reed said the couple did not evacuate the elderly victims because they believed they were so frail a move could kill them. They thought their plan of keeping them in place with food, water and generators was the better way, he told jurors.

"If there's any crime it's that this government that has served us so badly is now turning on its own people," Reed told the jury, referring to criticism of the government response.

Rescuers, including the Manganos and nursing home staff, managed to save 29 people from St. Rita's, floating them out on mattresses through the windows.

Reed said the nursing home stood on ground that had not flooded during Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Like Katrina, Betsy caused significant flooding in the area.

If convicted of all counts, the Manganos each face a maximum of more than 400 years in prison, prosecutors said.

As part of their case, prosecutors plan to show the jury graphic photographs of the aftermath of St. Rita's drownings and may call several New Orleans television meteorologists to testify about the strength of the storm.

The trial, moved 100 miles north of the tragic scene due to community outrage, is expected to last 3 to 4 weeks.

Trial in Katrina nursing home deaths begins - Yahoo! News