It is all too common in city courts to see witnesses reluctant to testify, even under threat of imprisonment, or developing amnesia over what had happened in front of them.
But this week, it was not a bystander but the alleged victim himself who clearly wanted to be anywhere but the courtroom where prosecutors were trying to get justice for him. As The Baltimore Sun's Tricia Bishop reported, Corey Ausby basically shut down on the stand, a tearful 16-year-old wanting nothing to do with the case against two brothers he accused of beating him while they were on a neighborhood watch patrol in Park Heights.
The trial against Eliyahu and Avi Werdesheim continues — it's not the call of Ausby but the state whether criminal charges are filed or dropped — but there is a sad irony in his pained declarations that he never should have called police and didn't want to testify against his alleged assailants.
This, after all, was a case that began with allegations of a citizens patrol taking what should be police matters into its own hands. Now it was turning into a trial in which the kid prosecutors said was the victim suddenly wanted to keep a judicial matter out of the court's hands.
Does no one trust the police or the courts to do their jobs anymore?
That is the backdrop to this case, with its discomfiting parallel to George Zimmerman's fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in a gated community in Sanford, Fla. Like Zimmerman, the Werdesheim brothers allegedly pulled up in a car to someone on foot whom they considered an outsider. One of the brothers reportedly told the teenager he didn't belong there, that it wasn't his neighborhood.
But, of course, it is his neighborhood, as it is theirs, Park Heights being a community shared, however uneasily at times, by a Jewish community that includes the Werdesheims and African-Americans like Ausby.
The brothers, one of whom belongs to the Jewish neighborhood watch group, Shomrim, have characterized Ausby as casing the neighborhood, looking for unlocked doors. Ausby has said he was just walking down the street when the men in the car started following him. The Werdesheims say Ausby waved a wooden board menacingly; the teen says he had grabbed it to defend himself against the men jumping out of the car.
Perhaps all this will be sorted out as the trial proceeds. In the meantime, in the clarity of hindsight, it's hard not to imagine an alternate scenario: The occupants of the car stay there, call 911 and the police arrive and see what's what. Maybe they would have been told what Zimmerman was: Don't follow the guy.
There are those who will grumble that police won't get there in time — in time for what, you have to ask, in both this and the Florida case given that no crime actually seemed to be in progress. Or that, as Zimmerman said in his 911 call, these people "always get away."
Whether or not that's true, it has come to be accepted by those who would point to examples of the criminal justice system faltering or failing: The police didn't get there fast enough, the state's attorney decided there wasn't enough evidence to charge, the jury wouldn't convict.
But that of course is the kind of cherry-picking that ignores all the times that the police did get there, the prosecutors did charge and the jury did convict. And, from the other side, that same system may hardly seem like it's faltering: If you're a young, black, inner-city male and you see prison cells filling up with people like you, this doesn't look like a criminal justice system grinding to a halt.
None of us knows what's behind Corey Ausby's reluctance on the witness stand on Wednesday. Maybe he was simply overwhelmed by it all, a kid in an alien environment, in the middle of a highly charged case that has drawn protesters on both sides. Maybe he has something to hide about his own actions that day; maybe he started to feel, as some victims have, that he would find himself the one on trial.
Again, we don't know. But his drawing back seemed all too similar to other teenagers I've seen called to testify. They don't know whom to trust, who will protect them, who will twist what they say and, perhaps most of all, what the cost will be when they return to the real world that runs on entirely different rules than those of the courtroom.
Trusting the courts, and the police, may not always easy for those who feel they've been burned by them in the past. But if there's anything cases such as this one show, working with them still has to be better than working around them.