A Baltimore prosecutor has dismissed a felony assault charge against a member of a Jewish neighborhood watch group who was accused of striking a black teenager in November.
After appearing at a preliminary hearing Thursday morning in District Court, Eliyahu Eliezer Werdesheim, 23, still faces misdemeanor charges. But the state's attorney's office did not pursue the most serious charge against the community college student, who is also a former Israeli special-forces soldier.
Werdesheim no longer participates in Shomrim, whose Orthodox Jewish members patrol Northwest Baltimore, said his attorney, Andrew I. Alperstein.
He said his client and his family were "very pleased with the fact that he's not facing such a serious charge."
"He looks forward to his day in court," Alperstein said. The misdemeanor charges include second-degree assault, false imprisonment and possession of a dangerous weapon. He could receive a sentence of up to 10 years if he is convicted. An arraignment on those charges is scheduled for next month, Alperstein said.
The incident occurred Nov. 19, when Werdesheim approached the victim while he was standing in the 3300 block of Fallstaff Road.
According to charging documents, the victim told police another man threw him to the ground while Werdesheim struck him in the head with his radio and shouted, "You wanna [expletive] with us, you don't belong around here, get outta here!"
But Alperstein has described the incident as self-defense, with the teen coming at the Shomrim members with a two-by-four spiked with nails.
The case sparked discussions about tension between the black and Jewish community, with some black leaders calling for the group to be disbanded.
Attorney J. Wyndal Gordon, who represents the victim, said he was shocked but not surprised by the news of the dropped charges.
"The worst he's going to get is a slap on the wrist, and this incident will pass him by for sure, while the community has been harmed," Gordon said.
The lawyer also expressed concern that the state's attorney's office did not prosecute the case as a hate crime, because based on Werdesheim's statements, the teen was targeted because he was black.
"When hate crime happens in the city, whether it happens at the hands of a Jewish person or a white person or a black person, it's still a hate crime if the sole motivation is the race of the victim," Gordon said.
Mark R. Cheshire, spokesman for the state's attorney's office, said the office would not comment on the status of pending cases.
After the hearing, Alperstein declined to comment about tensions. He said the incident was "not about the wider community."
"What happened was between two people on the street," he said.
Art Abramson of the Baltimore Jewish Council said that his group facilitated "two very productive meetings" between leaders in the black community and the Orthodox community.
"The seeds of cooperation are there and they've been there in the community," he said.
Baltimore NAACP President Tessa Hill-Aston, who attended part of Thursday's hearing, said she planned to meet with other community leaders to discuss the developments. "The other charges are still there," she said. "The process still needs to work."
She has served as a member of neighborhood watch groups like Citizens on Patrol. "They're not the police. They shouldn't take any physical action," she said.
A city judge granted Werdesheim permission to travel to Israel after he showed proof that he planned to return and a pledge by his relatives to pay $50,000 if he didn't come back. The defendant returned Wednesday, his attorney said. "He's a man of his word. He came back," he said.