BALTIMORE – Two brothers accused of beating a black teenager while patrolling an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood are set to go on trial Monday in a case with similarities to the Trayvon Martin shooting.
The brothers, who are white and Jewish, have claimed self-defense, saying the teen was holding a nail-studded board. Local civil rights activists hope the Martin case will draw more attention to what they believe was racial profiling by neighborhood watch vigilantes.
Eliyahu and Avi Werdesheim are accused of beating a 15-year-old boy who was walking through a Baltimore neighborhood in November 2010. The brothers pulled up next to the teen in a vehicle, then got out and "surrounded him," according to charging documents. The passenger threw the teen to the ground and the driver hit him in the head with a hand-held radio and patted him down.
The teen remembered the driver yelling, "You wanna (mess) with us, you don't belong around here, get outta here!" according to court documents, which do not identify which brother was driving.
While the teen struggled, a third man got out of a van and kneed the teen, pinning him to the ground. The teen told police that he stopped struggling and the third man continued to search him, while the teen insisted he didn't have anything on him.
Eliyahu Werdesheim told the Baltimore Jewish Times that he was acting in self-defense because the teen was holding the piece of wood. The teen picked up the board during the encounter, but put it back down, said J. Wyndal Gordon, an attorney for the teen's family. He said the family did not want to speak publically.
After the trio left, the teen called police and was taken to a hospital with a cut on the back of his head and a broken wrist, according to court documents. Using a photo book compiled by investigators, the teen later identified Eliyahu Werdesheim, now 24, as one of the men who assaulted him. He was arrested after about 10 days; his now 21-year-old brother was charged two months later.
The brothers are charged with second-degree assault, false imprisonment and carrying a deadly weapon (the hand-held radio). The pair face up to 13 years in prison if convicted on all three counts. A third man, identified in a lawsuit brought by the teen's family as Ronald Rosenbluth, does not face charges.
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said investigators don't believe Rosenbluth was involved in the beating. Rosenbluth said he doesn't believe there was a third person and he was only called to the scene after the incident.
Law enforcement officials emphasize that neighborhood watchers' responsibility is to report crime, and leave interventions to police. Most follow the rules, and confrontations are rare.
"We owe a lot of our success to communities that have stepped up and partnered with police. They help us out," Guglielmi said. "But when they step too far, we have to hold people accountable."
In the Florida case, authorities charged neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman this month with second-degree murder in Martin's death Feb. 26. Zimmerman claims self-defense, but Martin's family claims he targeted Martin mainly because he was black. Zimmerman's father is white and his mother Hispanic.
It's unusual to have a trial in which the allegations mirror a case so prominent in the news, said Steven Levin, a former federal prosecutor.
"Since the Trayvon Martin case, people cannot help but think about that case and draw comparisons, whether they are fair or not," he said.
In the Werdesheim case, the six trial postponements could significantly hinder the defense's case, Levin said. However, the charges against Zimmerman since the last postponement may mean jurors won't feel that they need to somehow set things right through the case they are deciding.
Eliyahu Werdesheim was suspended from the neighborhood group while Avi was never a member, according to Nathan Willner, general counsel for Shomrim of Baltimore, a group that patrols neighborhoods with a large concentration of Jewish residents and institutions in the Baltimore area. Shomrim, which is Hebrew for guard, has about 30 volunteer, unarmed responders. It was founded in 2005 to provide security and gather information for police, Willner said.
While the case has not garnered the attention the Martin shooting has, Cortly C.D. Witherspoon, president of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has organized protests outside the courthouse during court hearings and has been frustrated by the postponements.
"We feel that justice should have been served long ago. I would contend that the urgency for justice (in this case) is affected by the Trayvon Martin case because of the similarities," he said.
Members of the area's Jewish community also rallied outside the courthouse when the brothers appeared in court to enter not guilty pleas in February. Jakob Lurman, the owner of a barbershop, was among them.
"I have a business in the community. Shomrim do good work," Lurman said. "I don't know what happened in that case, but I wanted to show support."
Jewish neighborhood watch groups in New York City have faced accusations of unnecessary force against blacks, creating tensions between the Jewish and black communities. That hasn't yet happened in Baltimore, according to the Rev. Alvin Gwynn Sr., president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. The organization of predominantly black clergy met with leaders of the area's Jewish community to keep relationships between the two communities strong.
"We were already working with them when this came up," Gwynn said. "It hasn't done much damage yet."
Baltimore is a city that's 64 percent black, and the jury will likely have eight or nine black members. So race will be a factor, said University of Baltimore School of Law professor and practicing attorney Byron Warnken.
"What the defense has to do is completely downplay that," he said, and show the force was necessary to prevent a crime.
Susan Green, an attorney for Avi Werdesheim, said last month that she hoped the media coverage would not create an atmosphere that would make it difficult for her client, but declined to comment further. The attorney for Eliyahu Werdesheim did not return calls for comment.