A panel of jurors in Baltimore County Circuit Court on Monday heard opening statements in the case of man accused of attempting to kill two men because of their race.
Brandon Troy Higgs, 25, of Reisterstown, is charged with two counts of attempted first-degree murder, two counts of first-degree assault and four total hate crime charges, plus related firearms offenses.
Higgs, who is white, has pleaded not guilty, and has declined two separate plea deals, according to court officials. One was offered months ago and another was offered Monday morning.
Higgs, who opted for a jury trial, faces a potential life in prison if convicted.
John Magee, a prosecutor with the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s office, painted a picture for jurors wherein a small construction crew laying concrete in Reisterstown was interrupted by a loose dog, harassed and then attacked by Higgs.
The defense argued that Higgs was acting in self defense in a situation that escalated and ended in a shooting.
Three African American men, including Elvis Smith, who was later shot, and Robert Peete, were laying a concrete porch and drivewayon a cold, rainy day in late December 2018, Magee said. While they were working, a dog got out of the house from two doors down and left tracks in the still wet concrete.
The dog’s owner, Higgs, came out of the house, in bare feet and without a shirt, to retrieve the dog.
Magee said there were “words” exchanged between the workers and Higgs while Higgs was retrieving the dog. With his dog recovered, Higgs pointed out his home to Smith and the other workers, in what Magee called a “final threat," saying that the workers would know where to find him if there were any problems.
“Tell your boy to stop looking at me. Go back to Africa. The n-word,” Magee said, multiple times during his opening statement, alleging Higgs said those words to the victims during the altercation.
Magee said Higgs went back inside, and the men continued working on the nearby property. Later, Higgs came back outside, fully dressed and wearing a jacket, with his hands in his pockets, Magee said. In one pocket, a loaded handgun, he said, in the other, an extra magazine.
Higgs got in Smith’s face, Magee said, and Smith “pushes” Higgs. There’s some back and forth, Magee said, but then, Higgs pulled out his handgun.
Suddenly, Smith was “in a fight for his life," Magee said. According to the state, Smith and Peete began fighting Higgs, eventually getting on top of him to “try and control” him. Magee said Higgs “rightfully” got “a pretty good beating” from the workers as they sought to avoid getting shot.
At some point during the fight, Magee said, Higgs fired the gun, shattering Smith’s tibia. Smith now has a metal rod in his leg.
“Tell your boy to stop looking at me. Go back to Africa. The n-word,” Magee said. “That’s what’s in his [Higgs'] mind. That’s what’s in his heart.”
James Crawford, Higgs’ defense attorney, told a different version of the story, saying “facts are a stubborn thing.” Crawford added Higgs didn’t have control of his gun when it went off.
In Crawford’s telling, the case is “somewhat complicated.” He asked the jury to “look between the cracks and crevices a little bit.”
Crawford said that, yes, Higgs said racial epithets and yes, he came back outside after an initial confrontation. But, Crawford said, the fight was more complicated than that.
Crawford said Higgs was “retreating” from the situation when one of the workers hit him in the back of the head with a come-along, a rake-like tool used in concrete work. Crawford said he does not believe Higgs had control of the weapon when it was fired.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Bad Mr. Higgs, bad,'” Crawford said, referring to Higgs’ use of racial slurs. “I’m not here to stand up for that. What I’m here is for justice, and the truth of what really happened.”
A jury of 12 Baltimore County residents, plus two alternates, were empaneled out of more than 100 potential jurors Monday. During the selection process, Baltimore County Circuit Court Associate Judge Dennis M. Robinson Jr. asked 16 questions and follow-up questions. The state and the defense were permitted to strike potential jurors from the pool.
Among those questions asked by the judge were whether a juror would give a police officer’s statement more or less weight simply because it was coming from a police officer. Robinson also asked jurors if knowing Higgs was accused of attacking the workers “because of their race or color” could cause them to view the case impartially.
As in all criminal cases, Higgs is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by the prosecution.
Sitting in court, Higgs declined the opportunity to change out of his red prison clothes. He appeared to actively participate in his trial, joining Crawford in the jury selection process and taking notes. Higgs watched intently as Magee and Crawford presented their opening statements to the jurors.
Citing leaked online chat logs, news website The Daily Beast has linked Higgs to “a long history of hate.” According to the report, Higgs attended the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned violent and ended in the death of Heather Hayer, a paralegal and civil rights activist who was marching in a counter protest.
The state did not mention Higgs’ connection to online extremism during opening statements. On his arm, however, is a distinct, yellow tattoo, showing a lambda in a circle.
As court was adjourning, a man who had been sitting in the audience to support Higgs asked the defendant to please wear something else in court.