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Details on how fight started, gun fired are unclear in Baltimore County hate crime trial testimony

The exact details of how a black concrete mason in Baltimore County was shot by a pistol belonging to a white man during a fight in 2018 are muddy, according to testimony from witnesses and victims.

Based on testimony from two victims on Tuesday, though, is a clearer through-line: A man’s dog got loose, damaged a construction site and, when the construction crew reacted, the dog owner escalated with racial slurs and physical violence.

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Three construction crew members said Brandon Troy Higgs, the white man, escalated an initial confrontation by returning to the work site after he recovered his runaway dog and got in the face of one of the workers, using the n-word and other epithets.

A Baltimore County jury last week found Brandon Troy Higgs, 25, of Reisterstown, guilty of first-degree assault and hate crimes for an incident in which he shot a black man in the leg and called him the n-word.
A Baltimore County jury last week found Brandon Troy Higgs, 25, of Reisterstown, guilty of first-degree assault and hate crimes for an incident in which he shot a black man in the leg and called him the n-word.(Courtesy Photo/Baltimore County Police Department)

Higgs, 25, has been charged with two counts of first-degree attempted murder, two counts of first-degree assault, related firearms charges and four hate crimes in a Dec. 20, 2018, shooting in Reisterstown that left one man, Elvis Smith, permanently injured from a gunshot to the leg.

Higgs has pleaded not guilty and is in the middle of a jury trial being presided over by Baltimore County Circuit Court Associate Judge Dennis M. Robinson Jr. As in all criminal cases, Higgs is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by prosecutors.

According to John Magee, a prosecutor in the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office, Higgs confronted Smith and two other construction workers, Wendell Jones and Robert Peete, all black men, after an incident in which a dog belonging to Higgs walked through fresh concrete that the small crew had just laid, leaving paw prints and ruining a day’s work.

The confrontation escalated, and Higgs attacked the crew specifically because of their race and color, the state has argued. Jim Crawford, Higgs’ defense attorney, has said Higgs was acting in self-defense, that Higgs attempted to leave the fight as it escalated, and that he might not have been in control of the pistol when it fired.

During sworn testimony, the three men from the construction crew told jurors that Higgs’ dog was loose, that it walked through their freshly laid concrete and that Higgs said racist or derogatory things to the crew. Higgs, who was shirtless when the men first saw him, recovered his dog, stopped at the work site to confront the crew again, and then returned to his house a couple of doors down.

Minutes later, Higgs, wearing a sweatshirt, returned and confronted Smith on the yard of the property where the crew was working, no longer staying on the sidewalk, the testimonies all said. The testimonies also aligned in saying that Higgs is the one who made the altercation physical, by pushing Smith.

Unclear, though, are the details. Jones, 57, said he was not a direct witness to how the fight escalated because he had gone back to his work van to call 911. Jones said there was “yelling and fussing” and that the fight “broke out so fast.”

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A police officer who responded to the scene also testified. Officer Travis Daum said he arrived on the scene and saw Smith and Peete holding Higgs down, and a handgun off to the side. Daum said he kicked the gun out of a grassy area into a driveway before assessing and otherwise securing the scene. The officer’s testimony did not discuss how the fight broke out, because Daum arrived after the shot had been fired.

Peete, 49, said Higgs pushed Smith with both hands, and then Smith pushed back, and then there might have been some more pushing, and then Higgs turned to reach for the gun that was in his right pocket. When Higgs reached for the gun, Peete said, Smith used a concrete rake called a come-along to strike Higgs in the head.

Peete said the fight continued, with Smith striking Higgs as Higgs moved back toward his home and reached into his pocket for the weapon. Peete said after Smith and Higgs fell to the ground, he moved quickly to where they were, two homes down from the work site, to join the struggle and help Smith.

Peete became emotional as he recounted staring down the barrel of Higgs’ handgun.

“I saw his finger pop up, like he was about to pull the trigger,” Peete said. Peete said he grabbed the gun and pushed it down, and began hitting Higgs.

Peete said the struggle continued, and he and Smith both told Higgs to drop the gun; Peete testified that Higgs said the two men would kill him if he dropped the gun, and that he replied no, they would not, they just wanted him to put the gun down.

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Peete’s testimony was at times heated and testy; Crawford pushed Peete on the details of how the fight unfolded, and Peete frequently stared Higgs down from the stand.

Smith’s testimony, which came last in the day, was more straightforward. In Smith’s recollection of events, when the crew complained about the dog walking through the wet concrete, Higgs told them to kick the dog if it got too close. Smith, 60, said he responded that he’d kill the dog if it bit him, because it was a large, intimidating pit bull.

When Higgs recovered his dog and returned to his home, Smith testified, Higgs returned to the work site minutes later, this time clothed in a sweatshirt, with his hands in his pocket. Smith said Higgs left the sidewalk and approached him in the yard of the property where he was working.

Smith said Higgs called Smith the n-word, that Higgs said “you motherf*****s need to go back to Africa,” and that Higgs called Smith “boy.” Smith said Higgs got close in his face.

“I said, ‘My man, you’re invading my space,’” Smith testified. “If I stuck my tongue out, I would have touched his nose."

Then, Smith said, Higgs prodded him square in the chest. Smith gestured with his right index finger, leaning into the push, demonstrating what he said Higgs did to him.

“I was calm until he put his hands on me,” Smith said. “He stuck me in the chest. That’s when I hit him with the come-along.”

Smith, unlike Peete, said the fight devolved from there, with Peete jumping in immediately, and the three wrestling toward Higgs’ home until they slipped and fell to the ground.

Both men testified that Higgs was in control of the gun when it fired and hit Smith; Crawford argued that because of the wrestling over the gun, Higgs did not have complete control over it. Crawford also asserted that Higgs turned during the confrontation with Smith, as if to leave the fight before it escalated. Smith disagreed.

“He never turned to leave. He turned to pull out that gun, to kill us,” Smith said.

As court adjourned for the day, Higgs turned to face his family and others there to support him, waving, giving small thumbs-ups, and blowing a kiss to one woman. The trial is set to reconvene Wednesday morning, and the judge said he expects the trial to conclude that same day.

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After the trial concludes, the jury will deliberate and ultimately issue a verdict on whether Higgs is guilty. To convict someone of a crime, the 12-member jury must be unanimous.

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