ELLICOTT CITY, Md. — A Howard County jury began deliberating Thursday in the case of a man charged with strangling a fellow patient at a maximum-security state mental hospital, a woman who lived two doors away from him and had become his confidant. After more than five hours of deliberations, the jury went home for the evening and is set to resume Friday morning.
El Soudani El Wahhabi, 51, who is charged with first- and second-degree murder, testified that he killed Susan Sachs, 45, at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in September 2010 as part of a suicide pact, but couldn’t manage to kill himself.
With a photo of Sachs posed as a ballerina behind her, prosecutor Kim Oldham told jurors in her closing arguments that Sachs wanted to live. The day she was killed, she had done her laundry and had bought shrimp and ribs for her friends to enjoy at a picnic the next day because she expected to live.
“El Wahhabi decided it was time for her to die,” Oldham said.
She showed jurors the mass of white strings tied together that was allegedly used to strangle Sachs and appeared to have pieces of her black hair still attached, noting that the creation of the weapon was a sign of premeditation. El Wahhabi slipped into Sachs’ room as she lay in bed, placed the string around her neck and pulled it tight, Oldham said.
Oldham noted that El Wahhabi testified on Wednesday that Sachs let him put the string around her neck and even adjusted it. But the prosecutor’s voice rose as she described how the evidence told a different story of Sachs’ struggle for life. Bloodstains on the floor show that the pair moved from the bed and to a corner, scratches on her neck show that Sachs “clawed” at the string and an imprint of El Wahhabi’s Reebok sneaker left on her back showed that he placed a foot on her back as he pulled the string tight to “finish her,” she said.
El Wahhabi testified that he gave up on hanging himself with his own shoelaces in the bathroom across the hall because it hurt too much. But Oldham told the jury that judging by surveillance video, he didn’t have time for that and was likely just washing up and trying to figure out what to do next.
“Even if you believe it was a murder-suicide pact, that is still first-degree murder,” Oldham told jurors. “There is no such thing as consensual murder.”
And his story of the pair planning their deaths concedes premeditation, she said.
Defense attorney Debra Saltz told jurors that prosecutors were filling in too many details in the story and expecting two patients in a mental hospital to act rationally. She questioned a police interview when her client was on the depression drug Lithium and may not have known what he was saying. She also noted that there were no wounds on El Wahhabi showing that Sachs tried to stop him.
Saltz conceded that there might have been a struggle, but only because strangling another person is not easy.
“He was struggling to carry out her wishes,” she said.
El Wahhabi pleaded not guilty and not criminally responsible, but at the state’s request, Saltz wasn’t allowed to argue that the mental patient is not criminally responsible — the equivalent of an insanity defense — because there was no expert to testify to that. Saltz would not comment before the trial on why there is no expert. A gag order in the case issued at the state’s request as the trial began Monday barred attorneys from commenting outside of court.
Perkins is Maryland’s only maximum-security psychiatric hospital for patients who need pretrial psychiatric evaluation, have been found not guilty by reason of insanity or who become mentally ill while in prison. Sachs’ killing was the first in the hospital’s 50-year history, but it was followed by two more suspected patient-on-patient slayings in October. The deaths spurred changes at the hospital, including a new leader and a significant boost in staffing in recent months.
Both El Wahhabi, also known as Saladin Taylor, and Sachs were committed to Perkins after being charged with murder. El Wahhabi pleaded not criminally responsible to a charge of first-degree murder in the 1995 slaying of a woman in the Baltimore rowhouse where he lived, and he was committed to Perkins, according to online court records. Sachs was committed after a trial on a murder charge, according to court records. She was charged with fatally stabbing her 71-year-old landlady in Chevy Chase while she slept in 2004.
Saltz reminded jurors that El Wahhabi and Sachs were best friends, constantly seen together around the medium security ward. She asked the jury to consider why El Wahhabi would kill the one person he had in his life.
“How sad is it that this man had to take his best friend out of this world?” she asked.
Read more: The Post’s crime coverage