Former St. Elizabeths nursing assistant acquitted in patient's death

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010

A D.C. Superior Court jury acquitted a former St. Elizabeths Hospital nursing assistant Friday in the 2007 death of an unruly patient, who died after the employee tried to restrain the man during a struggle.

Prosecutors had charged Calvin Green, 54, with involuntary manslaughter in the death of Mark Harris, 39, a Northeast Washington man who had mental problems and had been a regular patient of the District-owned hospital since he was a teenager.

On Jan. 9, 2007, while at St. Elizabeths, Harris became upset after arguing with another patient, threw a chair and tossed some papers into the air. Green tried to calm Harris. When words failed, Green grabbed Harris from behind, put him in a chokehold, threw him to the floor and pinned him down for 10 minutes as he waited for other workers to come to his aid, according to court records. Within minutes, Harris's heart stopped.

After the jury foreman announced the verdict, Green hugged his attorneys, Janet Mitchell and Eugene Ohm of the District's Public Defender Service. Judge Gerald I. Fisher then wished Green "good luck" as Green left the courtroom.

Outside the courtroom, Green blamed the hospital for insufficient staffing, which he said lead to Harris's death.

"He didn't deserve what happened that day," Green said. "He was a patient. We needed assistance."

Green said that he did nothing wrong and that, had a nurse been in the vicinity, Harris might be alive. "Mark Harris and I shouldn't have been in a situation like that. Someone should have intervened."

It was a challenge for Assistant U.S. Attorney Vinet Bryant to try to convince a jury that Green, who had worked at the hospital for 30 years, failed to follow the hospital's training in restraining a patient who often had threatening and even violent outbursts.

During the week-and-a-half trial, Bryant questioned several hospital employees who spoke of the annual training Green and other staff members had received about three weeks before Harris's death. Each employee said Green had failed to follow hospital protocol in his struggle with Harris.

Green's attorneys also questioned hospital employees, who spoke of the often-violent outbursts that were common for Harris, who was a large man. The attorneys said Green had been defending himself during the altercation.

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, including a Justice Department probe. Last year, the District paid $1 million to the family of a patient who was fatally stomped by another patient in 2004. Also that year, one patient fatally beat another.

Harris's family has filed a $25 million negligence suit in federal court against the city.

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