6:08 PM EDT, April 24, 2012
Allegations that a pair of brothers assaulted a 15-year-old boy in Park Heights 18 months ago sparked outrage among many in Baltimore, and no wonder. The incident involved a testy combination of race and religion — one of the brothers was part of an Orthodox Jewish community patrol group, and the boy, who is black, told police that one of the defendants yelled that he didn't "belong" in the neighborhood before striking him. But despite some vocal protests on both sides about how the case has been handled, it has not led to violence, and it has not disrupted the generally productive relationship among the diverse communities of Northwest Baltimore.
But that peace risked being strained by the repeated delays in the trial for the two brothers, Avi and Eliyahu Werdesheim. The alleged assault took place in November 2010. The Werdesheims were indicted in January 2011. They pleaded not guilty in February of that year. And since then, their attorneys have requested and been granted six postponements of the trial for assorted reasons — the absence of one of the brothers' lawyers, illness, or the desire for more time to investigate. This week, they asked for a delay until the passions stirred by the fatal shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman cool, and a change of venue to a location where the Martin case would be less likely to influence jurors. That was a step too far. Fortunately, the attorneys reconsidered and requested a bench trial instead. Persisting in their effort might have served only to create new tensions where few now exist.
The Werdesheims' attorney, Andrew Alperstein, had pointed to symbolic parallels between the two cases. Both involve assaults on a black teen, and in both cases, the accused are claiming self defense — Mr. Zimmerman claims that Trayvon Martin punched him and bashed his head into the ground, and the Werdesheims say the boy in their case came at them with a nail-studded two-by-four. And certainly it is true that the Martin case has stirred passions nationwide and in Baltimore; more than 1,000 people marched here to demand justice for Trayvon.
But Baltimore is not Sanford, Fla., and nothing like the level of racial tension evident there has occurred here. In fact, there is no reason to believe that the Trayvon Martin case precludes a fair trial for the Werdesheims. There have been a number of news stories that have noted the similarities between the two cases, but the charges, evidence and applicable laws are entirely different. There may be some jurors in this city — or in any of Maryland's counties — who could not have objectively considered this case because of their opinions about the handling of Trayvon Martin's, but they could have been weeded out in the jury selection process. The brothers' decision to give up their right to a trial before a jury of their peers should eliminate that concern altogether.
Persisting in an attempt to delay the case further or change the venue, however, would have cemented a connection between the two cases. The endless delays in the Werdesheims' trial have already tested the good work done on both sides to smooth any racial divide in Park Heights. Another delay on the grounds Mr. Alperstein cited would have made his concerns about a fair trial a self-fulfilling prophecy — and might, in the process, have done harm to a community that has reacted to a potentially polarizing incident with remarkable understanding and maturity. Now, at long last, the trial can go forward, the evidence can be aired, and the community can put this case behind it.
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