Perkins staffer found not guilty of assault on hospital patient

A former staff member at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center was found not guilty Thursday of assaulting a patient at the state's maximum-security psychiatric hospital.

Rita Ward, 56, was charged with assault of 25-year-old Lori Shilling. The patient, who had been found not criminally responsible in a 2008 robbery, alleged that Ward was one of two hospital workers who forcibly dragged her to her room in a June 2010 incident at the Jessup hospital.

The jury of nine men and three women deliberated for more than two hours before reaching the verdict, and Ward grabbed her lawyer's hand and cried when it was announced.

"I hope that the patient can receive the help she needs," said Ward, who has retired from the hospital. "I was trying to help her, that's all I was trying to do."

Perkins has been under scrutiny recently in the aftermath of two recent homicides of psychiatric patients. Other patients are accused in those separate incidents.

Jurors in the Ward case saw security video of the incident, shot from the nurses' station.

A juror who declined to give his name said the video wasn't clear enough to tell whether Shilling was forcibly dragged or if she slid down the corridor in the playful way depicted by the defense. The juror also said he couldn't tell whether anyone stamped on Shilling's foot or pulled her hair, as she alleged.

Prosecutor Tricia Cecil said the decision probably came down to the credibility of the witnesses.

Jurors did not know that another staffer, Gladys Kelly, had a different outcome in her case. She was given a year's probation before judgment.

Charges were dropped against a third hospital staff member.

On the night of the incident, Shilling had come to the nurses' station and requested medication to help her get to sleep. Shilling has bipolar and other disorders, and acknowledged that her illness has sometimes led her to curse at police and hospital staff.

She testified that staff members dragged her to her room. But Ward and Kelly told jurors they had calmed the agitated Ward and that she wanted the staffers to slide her there.

Another staffer, who did not see the incident, testified that physically restraining and dragging Shilling would have been against hospital procedures.

There were 267 assaults by Perkins patients on other patients or staff in the 2011 fiscal year, up from 225 in 2009, according to state data. During the same three-year period, five staff members were fired for using excessive force on patients. Three of those were charged in the incident involving Shilling.

Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

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