New venue sought in Md. neighborhood watch trial
BALTIMORE—Two brothers accused of beating a black teenager while patrolling for a Jewish neighborhood watch group are seeking to postpone and move their trial, which had been set to begin Monday in Baltimore, because of publicity comparing their case to the Trayvon Martin shooting.
Eliyahu and Avi Werdesheim, who are white and Jewish, have claimed self-defense in the 2010 incident, saying the teen was holding a nail-studded board. The trial has been postponed six times.
While initial media coverage had died down, it surged again in recent days. Defense attorneys found scores of stories online comparing their case to the Florida case that has stirred strong emotions across the country, Andrew Alperstein, attorney for Eliyahu Werdesheim, told Judge Sylvester Cox.
The jury selection process is meant to weed out biased potential jurors, but the Internet, social media and 24-hour news channels make that more difficult in this case "given the saturation of media coverage in this matter, and the inextricable intertwinement of the Trayvon Martin saga," Alperstein and Susan Green, attorney for Avi Werdesheim, wrote in their motion for a new venue filed Monday morning.
The Martin case sparked rallies across the country, including one in Baltimore, where speakers urged the hundreds of protesters there to attend the Werdesheims' trial, they wrote.
"Needless to say, the impact of such a demonstration on prospective jurors could only have served to contaminate the Defendant's (sic) right to a fair and impartial jury here," they wrote, noting "conspicuous" similarities between the two cases. "Both involve young African-American males walking along on public thoroughfares, who supposedly were accosted by one or more Caucasian members of citizen patrol groups who felt they didn't belong in the area, and allegedly subjected to unprovoked attacks."
They also noted that Cox commented on the community's interest in bringing the case to trial during the last postponement hearing.
It would be in the best interest of justice to delay the trial until publicity calms down surrounding the case against George Zimmerman, who is charged with second-degree murder in Martin's February death, Alperstein told the judge.
Assistant State's Attorney Kevin Wiggins told the judge that the state believes in the jury selection process, and that the two cases are separate and distinct. Wiggins and the State's Attorney's Office declined to comment.
The judge directed the two sides to return to the courthouse Tuesday, when their requests would be heard by another judge.
The Werdesheims 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 confronted 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.
Eliyahu Werdesheim told the Baltimore Jewish Times that he was acting in self-defense because the teen was holding the piece of wood. An attorney for the teen's family has said the teen picked up the board during the encounter, but put it back down.
The teen was left 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.
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.
Alperstein, the attorney for Eliyahu Werdesheim, and Susan Green, an attorney for Avi Werdesheim, declined to comment as they left the courthouse with the brothers, their relatives and supporters.