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State settles with family of patient strangled at Eastern State Hospital

Washington state paid $500,000 to settle a lawsuit filed in the strangulation death of an Eastern State Hospital patient.

Hospital staff found Duane Charley dead in his room on Nov. 20, 2012, after another patient, Amber Roberts, told a hospital employee that she had killed someone using a corded belt, according to court documents.

Charley’s family filed the lawsuit, which was settled in March. It accused the state of failing to adequately supervise patients after an investigation disclosed that Roberts, committed to the hospital as criminally insane for the 2003 strangulation of a 72-year-old Yakima woman, allegedly snuck into Charley’s room, crawled on top of him while he slept and wrapped her belt around his neck.

Roberts has been charged with murder.

The case illuminated shortcomings in patient safety at Eastern.

The family filed the lawsuit in hopes it would “bring about a focus to the problems out there (Eastern State Hospital),” said Kelly Konkright, of the Lukins & Annis law firm. “We hope this brings about change, so tragic events like this don’t happen in the future.”

In the wake of the killing, Eastern’s accreditation was briefly suspended and its chief executive reassigned with the Department of Social and Health Services.

Dangerous equipment and items that could be used to strangle, such as belts, shoelaces and electrical cords, were removed.

“Patients have rights, so we have to balance that with safety. It’s a hospital, not a prison,” said DSHS spokesman John Wiley.

Charley had been a patient at Eastern since 1995. He’d been diagnosed with mild mental retardation, schizoaffective disorder and depression, according to court documents. Doctors considered him “gravely disabled,” unable to care for his own needs and vulnerable to serious harm if not involuntarily committed to Eastern’s care. The 56-year-old couldn’t leave the hospital.

The night of the killing, Roberts made a game of Charley’s death, telling an employee “you’re going to have to find him” as she followed the staff member down the hall as he checked rooms, according to court records.

Two psychologists last month deemed Roberts competent to stand trial in the killing.

Ray Hendrickson and Lauren Smith wrote Roberts exhibited “magical thinking” and experienced auditory and visual hallucinations.

However, “there appears little doubt that Mrs. Roberts was aware that she was doing an act that would result in the death of the victim,” they wrote.

An earlier examination following Roberts’ first arrest for strangling a 72-year-old Yakima woman in 2003 found her criminally insane, according to court records. Her trial is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 13.

Spokesman-Review reporter Kip Hill contributed to this report.
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