D.C. nursing assistant on trial in 2007 patient death

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

When he was a child, Mark Harris's mother knew something was wrong with her only son.

He would run away from home and often would be found at a nearby fire station watching the fire trucks, something he loved to do growing up.

When Harris was 14, doctors officially diagnosed his mental problems, including bipolar and impulse control issues. For the next 20 years, he would become a regular patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital, the city's public psychiatric facility in Southeast Washington, often staying for months, even years, at a time in between stints at his mother's house and group homes.

On Jan. 9, 2007, while at St. Elizabeths, Harris, a large man, began arguing with another patient. When Harris got upset, according to witnesses, he would often bang his head against a wall, which he began doing that day. He then threw a chair and tossed some papers in the air.

One of the nursing assistants, Calvin Green, 54, tried to calm Harris down. When words failed, Green grabbed Harris from behind, put him in a chokehold, threw him to the floor and sat on Harris's chest for about 10 minutes as he waited for other staffers to come to his aid, according to court records.

When Green released him, Harris had turned blue and began foaming at the mouth, Assistant U.S. Attorney Vinet Bryant told the jury Monday in the courtroom of D.C. Superior Court Judge Gerald I. Fisher. Within minutes, Harris, 39, was dead. Green was charged with involuntary manslaughter.

As part of her opening statement, Bryant told the jury that Green, a 30-year employee of the hospital, went outside the hospital's guidelines by using excessive force to calm Harris. "He didn't act in accordance with his training or experience," Bryant told the jury. "He snapped and overreacted to a patient he thought had a problem."

But Green's attorneys, Janet Mitchell and Eugene Ohm of the District's Public Defender Service, argued that their client used the best method available to him to calm a patient who was "violent, aggressive and scary" and had had numerous outbursts in the past, endangering staff, other patients and himself. They said past incidents included Harris biting, choking and throwing bleach on others during fits of anger. Ohm argued that Green, who had known Harris for about 10 years, was defending himself with a "reasonable amount of force."

The training and staffing of employees at St. Elizabeths, as well as the care of its patients, has been under intense scrutiny in recent years.

Last year, the District paid $1 million to the family of Alan Martin, a patient of the hospital who was stomped to death by another patient in 2004; that same year, Willie Fraley, 76, was fatally beaten by another patient. Previously, the hospital staff was criticized for not properly supervising Frank Harris Jr., who used his hands to gouge out his own eyes in March 2003.

In 1997, the District agreed to implement a long list of improvements as part of a settlement with the Justice Department, which had threatened to sue over widespread deficiencies at the hospital. Since then, the hospital has tried to improve its operations by reducing the number of patients and shifting others to community-based treatment facilities.

Still, observers of the hospital say problems continue. A year after Mark Harris's death, a review by University Legal Services, the advocacy group that represents patients at the hospital, found employees provided "inadequate and neglectful medical care," called the nursing staffing "insufficient" and minimal, and said hospital staffing levels failed to meet the patients' health-care needs.

Bryant, however, spent most of Monday questioning hospital employees about staff training. The jury learned that the workers receive annual training on how to properly restrain patients and specific use of nonviolent crisis intervention. They also heard that Green went through a restraint evaluation a month before Harris's death.

Afterward, Harris's mother, Glenna Lewis, who testified Monday and has filed a $25 million negligence suit in federal court, said she wanted "justice to be served and done" in her son's death.

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