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Trial begins in Baltimore neighborhood watch beating

An attorney for one of two brothers charged in a neighborhood watch beating case in Baltimore that drew comparisons with the Trayvon Martin shooting told a judge Wednesday he’ll show the Maryland case is about self-defense, not vigilantism.

Brothers Eliyahu and Avi Werdesheim, who are Jewish and white, are accused in the beating of a 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 Werdesheim brothers opted Tuesday for a bench trial after their lawyer said publicity surrounding the Martin case would have made it impossible to find an impartial jury. Their attorney said he 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 testimony in the Baltimore case, the teen spoke very quietly through tears Wednesday and could not be heard much of the time. He said he was walking to a bus stop, but never made it there because of his encounter with two men who pulled up in a car. In the afternoon, the teen shut down on the stand and refused to answer the prosecutor’s questions. He told Judge Pamela White he did not want to testify and, after explaining that he didn’t have a choice, the judge excused the teen.

The Baltimore victim, then 15, lived in the neighborhood with his grandmother. He was headed to meet his mother for a doctor’s appointment, when the two men in the car stared at him and told him he didn’t belong there, Assistant State’s Attorney Kevin Wiggins told the judge. Feeling scared, the teen 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.

The teen was taken to a hospital with a cut on the back of his head and a broken wrist.

“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.