BALTIMORE – A judge convicted one brother and exonerated the other Thursday in the 2010 beating of a black teenager they encountered while responding to a suspicious person report received by an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood watch group.
Judge Pamela White ruled from the bench against Eliyahu and Avi Werdesheim, 24, and 22, highlighting concerns about the lack of credibility of the testimony from members of the group, Shomrim of Baltimore. The brothers opted for a bench trial after withdrawing a motion to move their trial because of publicity comparing their case to the fatal shooting of black Florida teen Trayvon Martin would make it tough to find an impartial jury.
Eliyahu was convicted of false imprisonment and second-degree assault, and cleared of carrying a deadly weapon with intent to injure and Avi was acquitted of all three counts.
The brothers had no visible reaction when the verdict was read, though Eliyahu's wife left the courtroom in tears. Their attorneys said the brothers were relieved by Avi's verdict, but devastated by the judgment against Eliyahu. The brothers could have faced up to 13 years if convicted on all three charges. Eliyahu now faces up to 10 years on the assault count at sentencing in June.
Prosecutors said the brothers attacked the teen, hitting him with a radio and holding him on the ground. Eliyahu testified that he acted in self-defense when the teen attacked him with a nail-studded plank and said his brother, who was not a group member, wasn't involved in the fight. The judge rejected Eliyahu's claim of self-defense.
The small courtroom was packed with spectators, many from the Jewish and black communities, and extra sheriff's deputies were stationed around the room as White announced the verdict and explained her reasoning behind the decision. She recited the events of Nov. 19, 2010, as she understood them after listening to a week of sometimes conflicting testimony, and noted her frustration with some witnesses.
"As I waited for straight answers, that wait proved thankless," she said.
The brothers' actions were driven by their perception that the teen casing homes and cars and that Shomrim units labeled him as suspicious for that conduct, White said. They got out of Eliyahu's red Mazda Miata to confront the teen and Avi Werdesheim frightened the teen by saying, "We know who you are; we saw you on Park Heights; you don't belong here," she said.
When the brothers got back in their car, the teen ripped a piece of plank from a wooden pallet and swung it as he continued walking down the street, White said. Eliyahu Werdesheim decided to confront the teen again to "relieve" him of the plank, relying on his military training to takedown the teen, injuring him in the process by hitting him in the head with the radio.
Eliyahu Werdesheim testified that the teen sprinted at him, raising the nail-studded board. He said he couldn't run or get back in his car, so he defended himself by deflected the board with his left arm and hit the teen in the head with his right hand, which still held his radio. White found that the teen never had a chance to use the plank and Eliyahu Werdesheim did not act in self-defense.
The judge also found that Eliyahu Werdesheim and another Shomrim member, Marc Rosenbluth, held the teen on the ground, even after the brothers left at Rosenbluth's direction, and the teen was not permitted to get up or access his cell phone.
White noted that while Avi Werdesheim made a comment to the teen, he didn't hit the teen or try to threaten him.
The judge did not consider the testimony of the now-16-year-old victim, who was excused after refusing to testify. The Associated Press is not identifying the teen because he is a minor. Assistant State's Attorney Kevin Wiggins struggled to get the teen to speak on the witness stand about the incident. The emotional teen's words were inaudible and he frequently put his head down in his lap. Finally, he stood, declaring that he shouldn't have called police and he wouldn't testify anymore. The teen's testimony stricken from the record, but his 911 call recording was allowed.
State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein said he was gratified by the result. The case was made more difficult by the teen's reluctance to testify, but it didn't keep prosecutors from moving forward when they believed the evidence supported the violation of an individual's rights. Asked about the judge's harsh words for Shomrim, he noted that a message was being sent to them about what is appropriate behavior.
"Neighborhood watch groups serve an important purpose," Bernstein said. "It's important that those organizations be true partners and work with us and not against us."
J. Wyndal Gordon, an attorney representing the teen's family in a civil suit, said they dropped the $6 million suit against Shomrim and the brothers, on Wednesday. The family decided that the young man is not "durable" enough to make it through the rigors of a civil suit.
"There's no amount of money that would allow his mother to let him go through this process again," Gordon said. "This case was never about money. It was about justice and we got it today."