Murder trial opens in patient death at Md. psychiatric hospital

The strangulation of a patient at Clifton T. Perkins psychiatric hospital was not a botched murder-suicide pact as the suspect in the killing claimed, but the murder of a struggling woman in her bed by another patient who was her friend, Howard County prosecutors said Monday.

"The defendant's story that this was a suicide pact is just that, a story," prosecutor Danielle M. Duclaux told a jury in opening remarks. She said El Soundani El-Wahhabi told police that he was going to hang himself with a shoelace but "chickened out." He didn't take the laces out of his sneaker.

He told the lie to cover for his 2010 killing of Susan Sachs, a patient who was looking forward to a visit by friends, Duclaux said.

But defense lawyer Debra A. Saltz countered that there is no evidence that Sachs, 45, was "full of life," as the prosecution is expected to try to show. Rather, Sachs had problems, and was close friends with the man now facing a murder charge, she said,

"They felt people were out to get them, and they didn't want to be on this earth anymore," Saltz said.

Sachs' death was the first of three homicides over 14 months at the state's facility in Jessup. The killings led to two security reviews, resignations, firings, creation of an all-female ward and other changes at the state maximum-security hospital in Jessup that houses mostly patients who are ordered there by courts for evaluation or treatment. The majority have violent pasts, including killings.

Both El-Wahhabi, 51, also known as Saladin Taylor, and Sachs were in the hospital in connection with killings.

The attorneys painted opposing pictures of what happened the night of July 25, 2010, when a security video showed El-Wahhabi going into Sachs' room.

El-Wahhabi "snuck" into Sachs' room, where the door was propped open, and strangled her with what may have been a shoelace as she struggled in her bed, Duclaux said.

Duclaux said he "stepped on her back and her arm, leaving his shoeprint on her skin." He then put in her closet the pink sweat pants she'd wriggled out of during the struggle, and covered her with her blanket to make it appear that she was asleep. She was found dead the next morning.

But Saltz said Sachs let him into her room.

The trial comes less than two weeks after hospital workers held a rally to press legislators to add staff at the facility, where some employees are working 16-hour days. Gov. Martin O'Malley has included 93 more jobs in his budget proposal, but workers fear that may be trimmed by nearly one-third because of to state fiscal problems. The hospital's CEO, Dr. David Helsel, joined the rally.

El-Wahhabi was a patient at Perkins for 15 years with a criminal background that includes sexual violence against women. He went to Perkins after being found not criminally responsible for the killing of a 26-year-old woman, and not mentally competent to stand trial on charges that he had sexually assaulted his sister-in-law.

Despite that, he was placed in a medium-security coed hallway, with Sachs in a nearby room, shortly before she was killed.

Sachs had been found not criminally responsible in the 2004 killing of her landlady in Montgomery County.

In one week last October, two patients were killed and other patients were criminally charged, leading to the second security review at the hospital in a little over a year.

El-Wahhabi's trial is expected to continue through this week.

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