BALTIMORE — The teenager who authorities said was beaten in a neighborhood watch case in Baltimore that drew comparisons with the Trayvon Martin shooting refused to testify from the witness stand on Wednesday, prompting the judge ultimately to excuse him.
It’s not yet clear how the loss of the key witness will affect the prosecution’s case.
Brothers Eliyahu and Avi Werdesheim, who are Jewish and white, are accused of beating the black teen while patrolling for an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood watch group on Nov. 19, 2010. Their bench trial opened Wednesday on charges of second-degree assault, false imprisonment and carrying a deadly weapon.
The victim, now 16, cried as he mumbled responses to some of Assistant State’s Attorney Kevin Wiggins’ questions. The teen testified he was walking to the bus stop from his grandmother’s home to go to a doctor’s appointment that day.
He said he didn’t make the appointment because two men in a red car approached him, looked at him the wrong way and told him he was not supposed to be there. At times, the teen did not answer and would bend over to put his head in his lap.
WBFF-TV showed video of the teen being carried back into the courthouse after the lunch break. In the afternoon, his responses were even less audible and eventually he stood up while attorneys approached Judge Pamela White’s bench for a conference.
“I don’t want to testify,” he said. “I want to drop charges.”
White explained that the state brought the charges and it was not his decision to drop them.
Wiggins asked the teen if the reason he didn’t want to testify was because he lied or that the incident didn’t happen. The teen said he just didn’t want to testify. After talking the situation over with the teen, the judge excused him.
The defense objected to the playing of a recording of the teen’s 911 call after the teen was excused because the defendants would be unable to confront their accuser. The judge denied that motion and listened to the call, in which the teen tells the operator he had been cracked on the head with a walkie-talkie and was bleeding.
The teen was taken to a hospital with a cut on the back of his head and a broken wrist, according to court documents.
A day earlier, the brothers withdrew a motion to move the trial because comparisons to the Martin case would make it hard for them to get a fair trial. They opted for a bench trial, saying they believed a judge could conduct a fair trial.
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 the unarmed teen mainly because the teen was black. Zimmerman’s father is white and his mother Hispanic.
In opening statements Wednesday, Wiggins told the judge that after two men in the car stared at him and told him he didn’t belong there, the teen, then 15, armed himself with a board as the car left.
When the car returned, Wiggins said the teen dropped the board before Eliyahu Werdesheim grabbed him and Avi Werdesheim hit him in the head with a radio. As the teen reached in his pocket for his cell phone, Wiggins said a third person, who arrived in a van, stepped on his hand. Other members of the watch group, Shomrim of Baltimore, showed up and the brothers left before police arrived and didn’t return, he said.
“Sometimes I think people see things through their own glasses,” Andrew Alperstein, attorney for Eliyahu Werdesheim told the judge in opening statements.
Alperstein said his 24-year-old client, a pre-law student at Johns Hopkins University, was the newest Shomrim member volunteering in his community – doing what he called a mitzvah or good deed. The attorney said the man acted in self-defense.
There were two encounters between the teen and his client, Alperstein said. In the first, Werdesheim told the teen to move on and the teen responded with expletives and referred to their religion. As he left, Werdesheim saw the teen break off a piece of wooden pallet with nails still attached and begin to pace back and forth, and he returned to try to defuse the situation, according to the lawyer.
“If it was intended to be an assault, it would have happened in `Round One,’” he said.
Susan Green, an attorney for 21-year-old Avi Werdesheim, a pre-med student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who was not a Shomrim member, said she would raise questions about the identification of her client.
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