After a morning of reluctant, mumbled testimony, 16-year-old Corey Ausby stood in court Wednesday afternoon and spoke clearly for the first time, announcing that he wanted to drop the criminal charges against Avi and Eliyahu Werdesheim, the college students on trial for allegedly assaulting him while acting on behalf of a Jewish neighborhood watch group.
"I been wanting to drop the charges all the time, I didn't even want to go through [this]. I feel like I was being pressured," said Ausby, who took the stand that morning with tear tracks staining his face. "In my heart, I didn't want to testify."
But Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Pamela White, who's overseeing the nonjury trial, told Ausby he didn't have a say in the matter. "It was not your decision whether to bring charges against the defendants, it's the state's decision," she said.
Ausby's outburst was one of several emotional eruptions in court Wednesday, following opening statements in the high-profile case, which has highlighted tensions between some black and Jewish residents in the Park Heights area of Northwest Baltimore. It has also drawn comparisons nationwide to the recent killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot down by a Hispanic resident while walking through the man's gated Florida community. Ausby is black, while the Werdesheims are white.
Two men, one of them Ausby's grandfather, were ejected from the packed courtroom for contemptuous behavior, and the judge sternly admonished onlookers to keep "absolute silence and no more body language by anyone."
Ausby's revelation seemed to shake the state's case. The defendant brothers scrawled notes furiously on legal pads and gave each other purposeful looks while prosecutor Kevin Wiggins tried to salvage testimony from his star witness. He asked the judge to order Ausby's participation and drew two more responses from the teen before all cooperation ceased.
Wiggins asked Ausby if he had lied earlier when he told police two Jewish men threw him to the ground on Nov. 19, 2010, and beat him with a hand-held radio, and Ausby replied, "No." And when asked why he didn't want to testify, the young man said he "shouldn't have called police" in the first place, "I didn't want to."
It was hard to understand much else the youth said. He spoke in a hushed tone with his face bent toward his lap. His grandfather, Gerald T. Maddox, was thrown out of court for interfering with testimony after he tried to coach Ausby to speak up. His mother, meanwhile, sat in the back of the courtroom, staring intently at her son.
She has filed a civil suit on his behalf, seeking $500,000 on each of 13 counts from the Werdesheims and other members of Shomrim, the Orthodox Jewish volunteer security patrol that Eliyahu Werdesheim, now 24, joined before the incident. His brother, Avi Werdesheim, who turns 22 Thursday, , was never a member.
The lawsuit states what the criminal case will not, that the family believes the men were "patrolling the area in a red vehicle impersonating police officers in search for an African American child to harass and intimidate in the Park Heights predominantly Jewish community."
Wiggins and defense attorneys Andrew Alperstein, who represents Eliyahu, and Susan Green, who represents Avi, presented very different views of the case Wednesday during their opening statements. None of them said the alleged crime was racially motivated.
The key difference in their versions is in who made the first aggressive move. Said Alperstein: "I think people see things sometimes, through their own glasses."
Both sides agree that there were two individuals under observation by Shomrim members monitoring radios at the time, a black, adult male wearing blue jeans and walking through backyards and Ausby, who was in tan pants and a black shirt — basically a school uniform, Wiggins said.
The older man turned out to be a utility contractor. No one was sure who Ausby was until after the incident, which left him with a gash in the back of his head that required two staples to close.
Wiggins outlined a brief scenario in which Ausby, who lived with his grandmother, was on his way to the bus stop to meet his mother and go to a doctor's appointment, when the Werdesheims pulled up next to him in a red Mazda coupe and Eliyahu said, "You don't belong around here; this is not your neighborhood."
At least one of the brothers got out of the car, and words were exchanged, Wiggins said, then the man got back inside to monitor the teen. Ausby, meanwhile, armed himself with a board out of fear, pulling it from a nearby wooden pallet and dislodging several nails in the process. That's when Eliyahu, a former Israeli special forces soldier, grabbed the high school student and slammed him to the ground, Wiggins said, while Avi hit him in the head with a Shomrim-issued walkie talkie.
Other Shomrim members showed up, one rendering aid to Ausby, and the brothers left, the prosecutor said. A police sergeant later testified that the members on site when he arrived refused to identify who had been involved in the altercation, claiming they weren't Shomrim. Ausby eventually identified the older brother through a photographic lineup.
In the defense version of the story, Eliyahu stopped Ausby after watching him walk onto people's lawns and pulling door handles on cars. The attorneys claimed the teenager used anti-Semitic slurs and profanity, "rips off" the piece of wood and swung it while pacing up and down the street, and grew more agitated the more he was watched. When Eliyahu got out of the car a second time, Ausby moved in for the attack, Alperstein said.
"This is a self-defense case," Alperstein said. "[Eliyahu Werdesheim] is a respected person in his community. He was volunteering in his community when this happened."
Avi's attorney Green added simply that Avi comes from a "very strong supportive community" and worked as a volunteer firefighter. The younger Werdesheim is a pre-med student at UMBC with a 4.0 grade point average, she said. His older brother, a recent newlywed, is studying pre-law courses at the Johns Hopkins University.
Ausby, meanwhile, is struggling to get through high school, failing to appear at times, according to court testimony.
He took the stand shortly after 11 a.m. Wednesday, clutching a tissue in his left hand and dropping his head low into his lap, until he couldn't see anyone in the courtroom. The boy said he was going to meet his mother but didn't make it.
"I was fighting," he said, then something else the judge couldn't hear.
"I know that you're crying and you're upset," she said, "but I need you to speak as loudly as you can."
He said he was walking, when he "got approached by two guys. ... They was driving, they was just looking at me wrong," he said, fading out.
The people in the car, "said what I was doing around here" and "I ain't supposed to be around here," Ausby said. Wiggins implied that there had been a similar incident the day before, as Ausby headed home from basketball practice. "'You're the guy from Park Heights,'" the people in the car allegedly said.
They surrounded him, and started fighting, Ausby said. His head was bleeding, and someone had a knee in his back. Eventually, others came and Ausby was allowed to call 911, telling the operator that "Jews in a red car... cracked me upside my head."
The judge broke for lunch, and Ausby was uncooperative when court resumed, sitting silently as Wiggins asked him questions, refusing to answer, and eventually announcing that he didn't want to be there.
He was led from the court by sheriff's deputies shortly afterward.